A Walk in the Woods

February 8th, 2011 by Joyce Hackett

A chance encounter with a stranger and a Christmas morning stroll through rural Holland display the power of a simple good deed.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

The sun had not finished rising as we drove into the lot of the snowy park. We were the first ones there, and we got out of the car silently. It was Christmas morning, and my partner had just arrived; even after fifteen years in our trans-Atlantic relationship, there is always some friction upon reentry. The temperature was below freezing, and he hates the cold; and we were in Holland, which is famous for its wind. He had wanted to stay home and relax with the paper, but I had insisted we brave the weather. As we walked down the main road into the woods, a caretaker drove past and slowed down. “The park is closed until 9!” he shouted out his window. 

We stood there, at a loss, and began to shiver. Another hiker approached and we asked him what to do. In broken English, he said, “I cannot advise you to trespass.” Then he smiled and headed down a path into the snowy woods.

It was our first time in the park and my partner, thinking he knew smaller trails that would allow us to evade the caretaker, suggested we follow the hiker. We hurried to catch sight of his fast-disappearing silhouette.

To avoid talking about ourselves, we began talking about the hiker. His face was pocked from adolescent acne and he was not particularly handsome. Who takes a walk alone on Christmas morning?

“No children,” I said. 

“Perhaps they had the sense to stay indoors,” my partner said. 

As we walked, we tried to keep a respectful distance behind so that the man could enjoy his solitude. If he turned onto another path, we jogged a bit to narrow the gap between us. On a broad, straight pathway flanked by icy trees, we dropped back.

As the sun rose he turned onto open land and headed down a path between two polders — the dazzlingly flat grazing fields that tile Holland’s flatlands, bordered by grids of small canals. We turned and followed him. Our narrow path was like a hallway fringed by strips of tall bushes, and we could see the polders, glowing in the pink morning fog, through their lacey branch-work curtains.

At the intersection of two canals was a small, curved footbridge. As the hiker crossed over it, he glanced back at us over his shoulder. 

“We’re annoying him,” I said.

My partner, feeling accused, replied, “Probably his girlfriend drove him out of the house with her nagging. Finally he gets away, and then some hangers-on ruin his nature walk.”

At the far side of the field, he shot us another look before turning the corner.

On a sunny day, on land as flat as Holland’s, you can see for miles.  As the fog lifted, we saw how far the sparkling-white polders stretched — how huge the park was.  If we turned back now, we realized, we might never find our way out. So we scrambled after our solitary outdoorsman despite his wish to be left alone.

“Probably the girlfriend broke up with him a while back,” I said.

“Because he wanted to read the paper in the morning,” he said.

“Because he refused to go for walks,” I said. “He’s walking now because it’s what she always wanted, and he misses her.” 

“Come on,” he said. 

When we turned the corner, there stood the hiker with his hands on his hips, in the middle of the road, staring back openly at us. I quickly hugged my partner as camouflage.

“He thinks we’re stalking him,” I said.

“If we get lost, we could freeze,” he said. 

Back in the woods, we further dissected his troubles, until we had created an entire sorry life for the hiker. After two hours of walking, we approached the car park with relief.

In spite of our tangles, we both felt guilty for our imposition. So as the man steered his car towards the exit, we waved him down. He lowered his window, and my partner apologized for having intruded on his solitude. I added that it was our first time in the park and explained that once we’d followed him in, we needed him to lead us out.

“I thought so,” he said. “That’s why I kept looking back, to make sure you were behind me.”

We waved as he drove off, and got into our frigid car. Despite the chill, my partner did not start the ignition to fire up the heat. Nor did we buckle our seat belts. Instead, we sat silently, fogging up the windshield with clouds of breath. 

“Wow,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

He reached out his hand, and I took it. Like me, he was pondering the beauty of the place, and the man. While we were adorning his life with imaginary misery, our guide had taken us into his heart – and taken responsibility for guiding us to safety. 

At that moment, we heard a rhythmic revving of an engine. We looked over and saw another couple in a car whose wheels were spinning futilely in an icy rut. Without exchanging a word, we threw open our doors and walked over and began to push.

Joyce Hackett is the author of Disturbance of the Inner Ear, a novel about healing from childhood trauma. Her novel-in-progress, Reconstruction, is about self-reinvention and -rewriting in the lives of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.