Off the Map: Week Four, Stranded

I was going to get lost. At least, that was the plan. On a map of my hometown county in upstate New York, this area seemed to feature one of the greatest expanses without roads, and if I was going to stand a chance of having unforeseen adventures, I needed the biggest buffer against civilization that I could find.

But when I stepped out of the borrowed mini-van and read the sign for the state forest, I realized ... I’d been here before! The forest had an unpronounceable Iroquois name, but I remembered that I had been cross-country skiing here during my college years. A big, wooden map stood by the entrance, showing a dense network of lines stretching across the region. Nordic Ski Trails? I didn’t want Nordic Ski Trails… I wanted wilderness!

Disappointed, I yanked the door handle to the mini-van, and the door failed to open. Oh. I was locked out. The automatic locking mechanisms had taken it upon themselves to block my bad attitude and I from returning to the interior of the vehicle. I tried all the doors, shrugged, and set off down the dirt road in search of a working telephone.

I didn’t think tracking down a spare key would be too hard, if I could get a lift out of here. I reached some houses in a half-mile, but no one in the vicinity seemed to be home. I was walking up to the sixth house when I thought, “Wait a second ... I wanted a unpredictable hike through unfamiliar country, right? Why don’t I just try hiking home from here?”

From my pocket, I pulled out a scrap of paper upon which I’d scribbled some local roads and streams. There were three roadless areas I would have to cross to reach my family’s house. It looked perfectly feasible. I had no water with me, just paper and pen – the necessary tools of a writer. At worst, I figured I’d have a good story to share at my high school reunion next weekend.

The layout of these parcels was typical of upstate New York, with private property at the fringes and areas of questionable ownership in the forested interiors. Switching to stealth mode to avoid detection, I left the pavement and sprinted down the edge of a cornfield until the contour of the land blocked my figure from the view of surrounding landowners. I came to a circular pond and was catching my breath when a doe charged out of the reeds and fled into the forest. A spotted fawn was left behind, and it stood ankle-deep in the cattails, wondering what it should do about the human who had suddenly appeared up the bank. I made the first move, however, and followed its mother into the woods.

There were no signs of the doe. Looking around, I couldn’t blame the creature for departing. I was standing on a cleared path that was lined on both sides with a succession of bullet-ridden hunting targets. This was not a good place to have a “misunderstanding” with a disgruntled property owner. I should have made myself scarce, but a profusion of wild raspberries led me to linger. By the way, if you’re trespassing and under age 18, I’m required by your mom to say … you will get shot. In other words, please don’t try this at home, kids.

The further I hiked into the forest, the more decayed were the traces of prior human occupation. Gears, bathtubs and rusty mufflers, half-buried in ferns and beech leaves, became less and less frequent. Wooden hunting platforms hung in pieces from the trees, torn apart by the slow, inexorable growth of trunks and branches. A once-sturdy footbridge stretching across a gully was now listing at a 45Æ angle. And throughout the forest, the remains of centuries-old stone walls marked boundaries that no longer held any legal significance.

The skies were completely overcast, and without the sun for guidance I could only hope that my internal compass was functioning properly. Eventually, the clouds darkened further, and my westward progress was interrupted by a sudden downpour. The woods remained dry, but wet grasses in the meadows quickly soaked through my socks and shoes.

The dampness appeared to bring out a host of efts – orange-red adolescent newts on a rite-of-passage between the pond of their youth and their future aquatic home. And when the sound of raindrops subsided, the birds of the forest began to use their voices once again. Mourning doves cooed, robins warbled, and high above the canopy, a red-tailed hawk screeched in fierce defiance of the passing storm. The tedious scrawking of a blue jay in the bushes was annoying, but not as much as the background drone of indecisive biting flies, which had dogged my journey during all but the period of heaviest rainfall.

Four hours of steady rambling through fields, thickets, and barbed wire barriers led me at last to the escarpment below my family’s home in the hills east of town. I’d made it. But just as I was feeling the subtle touch of depression that sometimes comes at journey’s end, the sun came out and transformed the forest into an emerald vision of sun-dappled beauty. It was dazzling, and I wished my camera weren’t locked in a mini-van several miles away. I’d been raised in a beautiful part of the country, and although the mountains of the west have since taken me in, on days like these it sure felt good to be back.

Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and works as a naturalist at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School in Santa Barbara, CA. You may reach him mid-journey at Look for Bryan’s columns on our Facebook page –

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