Some roads lead towards the never-ending sunrise. Others, to a false darkness that never dissipates long enough for you to see clearly. One step forward may bring us great joy, while a few steps back may teach great wisdom. Mile after mile we either skip and sing in bliss, or stumble and fall to our knees. The asphalt might be new and firm under our feet only to crumble away to ruin as we take the next bend. Despite the chance of becoming utterly lost, we march ever on toward our destiny.
On the day I was born, this map of mine was blank. Back then it was as fresh as a summer breeze. The edges were as straight as the flight of a bird diving into a lake after an unsuspecting fish. Too many years of folding and unfolding have long creased this precious parchment. I’d like to think that it gives it character. It may not be without its flaws, but it is mine and I treasure it. Besides, without my map, I would not be able to look at how far I have come and wonder about how far I have yet to go. I tend to do this as I drift off to sleep each night. Beats counting sheep.
I’ve rambled along these roads for a good many year now. I’ve seen back roads that started out as roughly carved dirt that could be firm at one moment only to sink you to your ankles in the next. Then there are the faded away grass paths that hold promise of adventure but fizzle out into mere animal trails. There’s also the bustling interstates that made my head whirl with the possibilities, but in the end, I felt displaced and out of sync. I’ve walked them all. It has been lonely work, filling in my map, at least I’ve had my share of company, now and again.
Most of my fellow travelers were only along for a certain part of my journey. I miss the ones who were meant to stay for good, but could only stay for a season. I’m grateful for the time I was blessed with their presence and guidance. Their path was one that I was unable to follow in this lifetime. I’ll find them at the fork in the road that leads to the next great set of roads. In their hands, will be another blank map. Before I go to join them, I hope to have mine completed enough to pass along to my successor so that the roads best left untraveled might be avoided.
The roads best left alone are sprinkled with travelers who are only meant to be around for one season, yet are kept as companions for far longer than is wise. It seems they are the ones that teach the hardest of lessons about what it means to wander the roads of the unknown. The kicker is that they tend to travel the roughest roads that lead to nowhere. Following them is pointless, yet you find yourself doing so willingly. Sounds crazy, right? It is crazy, completely and utterly bat gaga crazy.
I think we all tend to go a little coo-coo from time to time. Life on the road is difficult under ideal circumstances. Sharing the adventure with another makes the going seem a bit easier. If you are lucky, then you find someone who will help you fill in the far reaches of your map with intricate details, rich with life. It takes some time to find that particular breed of traveler. Hence, this is why we sometimes lose our heads, grasping upon those that seem to be our permanent companion when in fact, they are just a tumbleweed best left to blow in the wind.
I picked up one of these tumbleweeds on my travels across the rough country. The sun had been beating upon my brow unmercifully. My clothes were drenched in sweat before the morning had even begun to stretch in its bed. The shoes that I had acquired before starting this particular journey had been a dark brown, like chocolate. Now, they are but a ghost of their former color, sun-bleached, old and worn. I was a sorry sight. I kept my head down, watching my feet puff up little clouds of dry dust with each step. Every once in a while, I would cast a weary look towards the horizon. Unseen dancers shimmered and shaked in the distance, moving along the heat radiating off of the desert floor. For every step I took towards them, they remained ever out of my reach.
My companions that were with me, on the day I was born, crossed my path numerous times, rejuvenating me with each passing. I was determined to keep going, but boy was this going to be the hardest journey to date. Perseverance and tolerance. Keep pushing forward and tolerate the storms as they came my way. The days seemed to stretch out for eternity and the nights were twice as long. I met few new travelers in those first months. I began to think of this trip as a cleansing of my soul, a time to get my head together so that when I did reach the end of the desert, I could fully enjoy the lush green fields that must be on the other side.
For a time, this indeed was my mission. It worked wonders. The days did not feel as hot and sticky. The nights were not cold and lonely. I was at peace with myself. The spring returned to my step. I greeted the dancing heat phantoms each day, swearing to catch them before nightfall. At the end of the day when they had yet again succeeded in avoiding my capture, I chuckled to myself, for tomorrow was another day and the chase would begin anew.
One morning, I awoke in fine spirits. Sure, I still looked like I had gotten into a fight with a crazed jackal who used the desert to wash me before dumping me into a dry riverbed, but I felt amazing. I felt so wonderful that I threw down my pack and did my best impression of my shimmering dancer friends. I must have look pretty foolish for a spray of deep, belly laughter startled me out of my boogey-woogey. Slightly embarrassed but feeling too fine to care, I grinned like a half-wit and greeted the stranger who shared my delight.
There was an instant connection. The two of us had been worn hard by our journeys, but were rediscovering ourselves along the way. Since we both were heading in the same direction, we decided to team up and cross the desert together. Each day, we greeted the dancers with a funky dance of our own. Each night, we filled in the gaps of our maps, trading information about the strange places we had visited. The desert carried on as it always had, uncaring of our passage. It threw everything it had at us. There were nights as cold as death. Storms that pelted us with gallons of icy water only to spit us out the other side into relentless heat that sucked the very moisture out of our bones.
We were battered and bruised from the many falls down shale encrusted banks that scattered under our feet as we descended their steep sides in an attempt to cross the dry river bed before the next deluge swept us away for good. Our spirits rose and fell with the terrain. Tempers flared but not for long. The soul began to lose hope of reaching safer passages through the world. A shadow started to crawl across the heart of the desert. Change was on the wind. It smelled of the living things of the world, now forgotten by our noses who had only smelled limestone and sand for far too long.
My companion noticed the change in the terrain first. A few straggly patches of sage brush were desperately trying to force their way out of the rock-encased earth. They were a pitiful sight but welcome after nothing but sand and stone. Though scarce in the beginning, signs of life, real life, became plentiful as the desert slowly shrank behind us. A spurt of wild grass here, a thicket of dry bushes there. Less rocks and sand, more pebbles and dirt. This was our path until the day we came across a fork in our road.
On the left, the breeze carried the scent of dry earth and burnt sand. On the right, the sweet smells of wet dirt and vegetation. The choice seemed obvious to my companion but the shadow that had lingered over the desert now settled upon my heart. A warning from deep within spoke of danger and heartache along the right path. The notion of returning to another desert seemed ridiculous after all of the troubles we had just overcome. The warning; however, remained within. It spoke of a false paradise that would swallow me whole if I ventured forward. I knew the desert was the right way, but I ignored myself and followed my companion, taking the road best not traveled.
At first, the way did get increasingly better. Our wounds healed and we no longer had to worry about our footing being lost out from under us. The ground was soft and forgiving. Everywhere the eye looked was life. It was rejuvenating to the spirit. Instead of a hard, thankless journey, the going was easy. We refreshed ourselves from the numerous springs, washing away the grim of the desert. Clean of mind and spirit, the days were carefree. It seemed that we had found our own private paradise. Each day brought a new discovery more delightful than the last. Life was good and I had a wonderful time filling in my map with all of the details.
One afternoon, I sat under an old elm tree, looking out upon a meadow. The sky was clear and a rich, crystal blue. Birds were happily singing their hearts out, rejoicing the day. All was righteous and glorious in the world. On a whim, I decided to stroll through the meadow and bask in the sunshine. Humming contently to myself, I took a deep breath, filling my lungs. Something musky and unpleasant lay beneath the sweet smells of the wildflowers growing around me. It was only there for a moment, but it was so out of place that I no longer wished to be in this once peaceful retreat. That inner voice, filled with warning, spoke up. Not all was as it seemed.
Once the seed of doubt has been planted, two things can occur. The first is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This means that we will either unwittingly cause something to happen by our actions or we will worry ourselves so much that we still change our actions causing the very thing we fear comes to fruition. The second is that the clouds part and we start to see the world as it really is and not what we think it should be. Tricky it is to figure out which scenario we are currently experiencing, right? One road leads towards self-doubt, the other sees all of the obstacles and can react in time to avoid them. How to choose? It is tough, but luckily, we each have our own internal system that helps us decide. Sometimes it does not always work as it should, but when it isn’t glitching, it is more accurate than the fasted super computer.
My internal system went on alert. Suddenly, I began to see the paradise for what it was, a cleverly disguised wasteland of rot. The Spanish moss that I once saw as romantic draping in the ancient elm trees was full of red insects that bit. Upon careful inspection of the lazy springs, I could see they were crawling with leaches. Poisonous mushrooms littered the meadows, choking out the wild flowers. The bushes were nothing more than dens for spiders. The fallen leaves were moldy and squished underneath my foot. This was not the paradise that I had dreamed of often.
My companion seemed to be oblivious to our surroundings. I tried to point it out but was told that I was worrying too much. Finally, I gave up on trying to talk any sense into the situation. The further up this path we went, the more the rot took ahold. What once was green and thriving, turned black and withered. Paradise was turning into rocky terrain once again. We were heading into the foothills that surrounded razor sharp mountains. To venture forward, meant risking too much. Once false step and I would tumble to the ground in a tangled heap. This is when we came to another fork in our path.
Over the mountains promised to be the land of plenty. I knew that I could not weather the trip with my companion who took too many risks and did not weigh the consequences first. Too many times had I seen my carefree friend jump into a pond only to have me remove the leaches afterwards. Too many times had I stayed awake through the night with worry after a binge on wild berries followed by the use of the wrong vine turned out nearly fatal, and itchy. I knew that I was not a perfect travel companion either but it gets tiresome being the only one using their head. This journey of mine is about moving forward. The two of us were only moving in circles and dealing with never-ending crises.
I looked at the branches of the fork ahead for a long time. The shadow in my heart grew as I made up my mind to part ways with my tumbleweed. I would miss the warm smile that brightened my day and the carefree laughter that warmed my soul. Unfortunately, that was not enough. These roads demand more out of each of us. We are here to fill in our maps with vibrant details, not fritter away our time, filling it with fancy. I looked at the two paths and said my good byes. It was a difficult road, going back the way that I had come, but necessary. I wanted to look back, but I knew there was no point. No one would be there. It was as it should be.
I stand at the fork I should have taken once again, smelling the dry, dusty air blowing in from the left path. I dread the desert that lies up ahead. I know the going will be tougher than anything I have tried to cross before. I will be alone for a good deal of the journey. Somehow, that seems alright with me. I know those that were with me when I was born will cross my path often. I may even meet some new friends along the way. I am pretty sure that I am not quite done with those pesky tumbleweeds either. They seem to blow in when you least expect it. Hopefully, I am a little wiser now and have seen my last dead end.