BY MACKENZIE GOWLETT
I’ve always enjoyed the peacefulness of the outdoors. I don't just mean 'going outside' but really going off the beaten path. Escaping the trappings of civilization. Unfortunately, I hadn’t done this in years.
I grew up in the suburbs of a small town called Beeton out in the country of rural Ontario. While not exactly "away from civilization" it wasn't that much more than a stone’s throw from it. Just behind my house were a large field and a creek. Beyond that were woods. While I did live in a suburb, I was quite familiar with the concept of wilderness and stepping away from civilization. Within minutes you could be beyond the sights and sounds of human creation.
Since enrolling in university, however, I've moved to the city and become used to the constant sound of cars, planes, and people always around me. Cities are constantly in motion, even in the dead of night.
Recently it came to mind to try to find that again. That peaceful solitude of the 'outdoors'. I had been getting really stressed out by school and some things in my personal life for a while and I thought it would be a nice foray to take my mind off things. There was a small forest just behind my campus I’ve explored a couple times before, but not in a long time. So, throwing my bag over my shoulder I hopped on my bike and rode it to campus. Upon getting there I parked my bike and walked off into the nearest treeline I saw, regardless of the lack of path. As it turned out, this was a heavy slope down toward the valley covered in thick brush. Undeterred, I set out scaling the hill, gripping trees to keep myself from falling. I had slept in and then been delayed by my usual habits of chatting and surfing the web, so it was already getting dark by the time I started and I had to be careful.
Already, the city sounds were fading and being replaced by the chirping of crickets and the whoosh of the wind through the leaves. I made my way down the hill through the dark forest. It was difficult at times; in some places the thick brush covered the ground, entangling my feet. I would walk balanced along fallen logs to avoid the brush, only to be stymied as branches from a nearby tree blocked the way. Nature is chaotic.
Civilization can be chaotic as well, but in different ways. People and noise everywhere. Traffic. Lawbreaking. Like most animals, humans have urges and instincts that make them fairly chaotic beings. But they also yearn for order. People set rules and regulations to guide and bring order to the whims of our lives.
The only rules nature seems to follow are those of biology, and the only order that of ecosystems to keep everything from falling apart. This tree grows independent of that tree. These bushes sprang up in that spot as a whim of whatever carried their seeds there. That tree fell across there because that happened to be the way the wind blew. Everything is how it is by chance and nothing guides anything. Sure, there might be a bare distance most trees keep between them to avoid using the same resources. And sure, some animals might communicate and work together to survive. But that is really the extent of the order in nature.
Nature is a base ordered system buried under a chaotic surface, while civilization is chaos strictly confined and groomed to be as ordered as possible.
I reached a part of the hill where the ground evened out for a bit. Some trails had come into sight as well so I made my way toward them. As enjoyable as nature was, walking through brush without being able to see my feet could be dangerous. Speaking of brush, my way to the path was largely blocked by it. I tried walking along a log again, but branches and another log made it difficult. As I drew closer following the log became hopeless and I was forced to step off into the abundance of plants to the side, so I simply stumbled my way through the last few steps to the path. At the last possible moment, of course, my foot was caught on something and my shoe was yanked off.
This left me standing on the path, staring back into the brush where my shoe had vanished. Nature isn’t just chaotic, but also cruel it seemed. After some searching I managed to retrieve my shoe and continue my journey.
The path led alongside a small river, further down the hill. The sounds of the flowing water were pleasant, but the distant rumble of cars could still be heard. I kept following the trail. It split every now and then so I picked a random route to follow, not caring where I ended up. This was an adventure for me. I wanted to get lost.
After a couple minutes walking I saw a small, unpaved and barely cleared footpath branching off. As dark as it was now I could barely see it, but I was fairly sure it was a path of some sort so I set off down it.
It grew darker and darker. I could barely tell if the path even continued, but I kept walking. Still I could hear the sounds of cars in the distance. A bench came into view just off the trail. More signs of civilization. I sat for a time to record my thoughts before rising to continue off down the mysterious footpath.
The path came by the river again, closer this time; barely a foot between the edge of the narrow trail and a short drop into the water. There seemed to be some strange cube in the water as well as a large white expanse, maybe foam. I couldn't make them out. Looking up I saw a clear sky over the river. Not getting out much and living in the city meant I hadn't seen a clear night sky in some time. I stared for a while, enjoying the view and stars I hadn't seen in so long.
Then one moved.
I kept walking.
The footpath turned away from the river again and went deeper into the forest. The brush was closing closer and I began to question if I was even on the trail anymore. I certainly hadn’t been able to see it for a while, or much of anything aside from plants around my feet and the silhouettes of the trees around me. It was so dark I wouldn't know if there was a dead body lying across the path until I stepped on it.
I was starting to scare myself. The dark woods were just no place for someone so used to the constantly lit city.
Shortly after thinking this I hit a dead end. Unsure the trail even went this way I turned back to find my way to a more solid path again. For a moment I sat at the edge of the drop to the river, my legs dangling over as I recorded my thoughts once more. My leg kept itching and I kept smacking at it. Eventually I felt something small in my pantleg and scrambled to my feet trying to stomp it out. After flailing about for a while I stopped and felt myself over. Nothing. Maybe I should have brought some bug spray.
I continued back down the path.
After reaching the main trail again I followed it further and over a bridge spanning the river. Finally I reached the sports fields on the other side. It was time to turn back. I found a path that seemed to loop back and set off once more. Some ways down the trail I saw another footpath branch off and decided to explore once more. It took me down a small slope onto a white expanse.
A stony beach of sorts next to a river. And there was the cube. I was just across from where the other footpath had taken me, now at the level of the water. I approached the edge to inspect the cube. It seemed to be an innocuous block of concrete with a hole in it. I couldn't make out much more or decipher its purpose. It was simply an invader of civilization in this small sanctuary of nature; the smooth order of its perfect right-angled shape at odds with the chaotic wilderness around it.
It struck me as a sort of physical embodiment of the problem here and what I was trying to escape. Civilization is so pervasive. This forest itself was likely made mostly by humans and just allowed to exist here for their enjoyment and a sense of “preserving nature”. Humans feel the need to impose their will on everything, even each other. Recently I had felt as though I were drowning in my obligations to other people and the rigid order of society. That is what I sought to escape. But here, so close to the big city, I would not be able to truly distance myself. I came here because it was close enough for an afternoon trek, but next time I might try going farther afield in search of an escape.
Regardless, this block was not what I had been looking for. I went back to the main path and continued on.
As I followed the trail some more, I enjoyed the sights and sounds of the forest. It was nice to smell the freshness of the air, see the wild roughness of nature and hear the wind through the leaves again. Once more, the path seemed to follow the river. Without even realizing when it had changed, I couldn't hear the cars anymore; just the sounds of the stream and the crickets and my own footsteps. The dark trail extended before and behind me. The river flowed to the left of me at the bottom of a drop and to my right the ground rose into a forested hill. Everything was shadowed in the dark of night and the stars twinkled above me. There was still the concrete path I walked, but aside from that I could at least imagine I was truly apart from civilization. For a few, fleeting moments. A small smile crossed my face and I stopped, taking it all in.
Despite the fear the dark invoked in me at times, and despite how manufactured this wilderness was, I still felt I had found what I was looking for. I found my peace and quiet and for a moment I could forget about all the projects I had due. I could forget about all of the people around me and forget about what was going on in my life and the world as a whole. In that moment it was just me, the bubbling river, the swaying trees, and the chirping of the crickets.
It reminded me of my life back in Beeton when I was little. It too was peaceful at night. Unlike the city, towns slept. I also remembered when my brother and I would head down to the creek or go for a walk in the woods. Was it really a break from my busy life that I was looking for, or an escape back to those days? It was hard to say.
I did miss my childhood. Most people do, I think. Those tended to be simpler times with fewer worries. My only concerns had been avoiding my brother’s teasing, behaving myself so I didn’t get in trouble with mom, and making sure I caught the next episode of Recess.
But did I truly miss my childhood? Did I miss living in a small town? Or did I just miss having fewer obligations? I don’t think there really is a clear answer. I miss all of them, and coming out here at least let me get a little of that back and pretend things were different for a little while.
I sighed and resumed my walk, knowing I needed to make it home soon. Eventually the path came out of the woods and I saw a road again, with an overpass crossing the river. As late as it was, there were of course still cars zipping by and a few people walking down the sidewalk. With them, the noisiness of city life was back.
Also, I had no idea where I had emerged and was thoroughly lost. I knew I could find my way back to campus if I simply turned back and retraced my steps but that felt like quitting, so I followed the path up to the road and crossed the bridge. I knew that campus was on the other side of the river so I set off that way.
I followed the road uphill, and upon reaching the top I finally recognized the neighborhood. I knew I couldn't have strayed too far on foot. Turning left I began making my way back to campus to retrieve my bike and ride back to my basement apartment.