Friday, February 17, 2006

The road taken

So these two roads diverged in a yellow wood. . . . Sounds like the start of a tale told by an old man, doesn’t it? You know, like that familiar one your grandfather recited in those rare animated moments when time's weight slipped off his shoulders for a lunch break.

“I couldn’t possibly take both, right, and still be one guy,” he’d add, offering his cigarette up to his cracked lips with yellow, hesitant fingers, you looking not at him but through him, a ghost in waiting, an apprentice ghost. And some part of you did listen, there in his garage that smelled like gasoline and sawdust. But the rest of you dreamed of those tuna sandwiches your grandmother was making, the ones she would cut up into four perfect equilateral triangles and arrange in a circle on a paper plate like an enriched white bread mandala, created only to be destroyed, only to be created again, only to be destroyed.

“So I took the one less traveled by,” your grandfather would continue.

“Hmmmm,” you’d mutter absent mindedly.

“And you know what?”

“What, grandfather?” The question was part of the formula, you knew, and the answer too:

“That has made all the difference.”

Your grandfather has passed away, as you know, but damned if that story – ok, poem – doesn’t remain here on earth with the rest of us. And we all know it well. The two roads, the traveler staring down at each of them in succession, the one path more trodden than the other, that fateful decision, way leading on to way and all that. So it wasn’t a surprise when earlier this week I thought of it while walking in the woods.

I’d come, listen carefully, to a fork – no, a wishbone – in the road. One path I knew quite well and liked. It led uphill to a wide, flat route that wound through the woods for a gentle mile or so, crossing a shallow creek before joining a narrow patch along the edge of a steep gorge [pictured]. Close to home, this path had been a pleasant and solitary way to end my walk in the timid glow of the winter sunset.

The other route I had just discovered that day. Its entrance was partly obscured by a thick bouquet of bare tree branches, gray and vigilant, but the thin muddy trail could no longer hide under the snow, which had melted that afternoon. And, ah, I looked up at my familiar route as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth, then took the other – because it was there, and having perhaps the better claim as a mucky and mysterious affair. Somewhere ages and ages hence nobody is going to give a crap about this, but I’ll go ahead and say it: two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and it made no difference whatsoever.

Here’s what happened. I crashed through the clutter of branches and stomped heavily and happily through the black moistness of the new path. Squish squish squish was the noise my boots made on what felt like an ancient river freshly drained. The path became steep, curving down a slope deeper and deeper into unfamiliar ground. I trudged forward, clumsily, now inches deep in mud with my backpack straps tightened over my shoulders in anticipation of the spill that I thought was sure to come. Soon I became aware of a soft murmur, a steady hissing sound rising above the ringing in my ears. It was the sound of water in motion somewhere up ahead, faint at first and growing clearer by the footstep, evolving into a gentle surge by the time I came upon a clearing and the following scene: a small, meandering creek slipping down a rocky bed between two steep embankments.

“Haven’t I been here before?” I heard myself ask out loud. Indeed, there was something so familiar about it all. Wasn’t this the same creek I crossed everyday, the one that lies along the very path I chose not to take? Scanning the site, I began to forge a mental list. Declivitous hills on either side of the water? Check. Pretty, step-like formations running down the center of the creek? Check. North-South orientation? Check. Path beginning on the other side leading off in the direction of the big gorge? Check.

I sat down, coughing out visible puffs of deflated excitement into the cold air. I was convinced; this was the creek I skipped across daily, sometimes twice in a single day. It was a lovely site, to be sure; I had always thought so. But it was nothing new. Certainly not a fitting reward for having braved the road less traveled.

Disappointed, I pushed on, crossing the creek on the slippery stones jutting just above the waterline. Up the other bank I went, and back onto the trail. I walked, paying little attention to anything but the narrowing path below me, which I followed mechanically and near-sightedly step after step after step after step.

Then it happened. . . .

I was there again. There, by that same creek, with the same steep embankments and the same steps, the sound of the water the same, the smell of the cold, damp air mingling with fumes of rotting leaves, the same. But this was not that place. I felt that almost instinctively. It couldn't be, I knew: I had walked in a more or less direct path away from that other clearing. So it came creeping, a new realization. It appeared like a small dot on the horizon of consciousness, and its lines grew clearer as it slouched toward me to be born. This was the creek that I crossed everyday. This was the one I knew well. That first site only looked like it, though it was more than a mere resemblance: they were practically indistinguishable one from the other. They were, in fact, identical.

From that moment on, I felt about me a barely tangible swarming, as if the air, the land around me were suddenly saturated with presences only just visible in the murky twilight. There were infinite roads now leading off in infinite directions, an infinite number of infinite creeks, gorges, waterfalls, existing everywhere at once. And all around me there flittered familiar faces, twinkling dimly like fading stars in the branches of trees and on the rocks and dead leaves, the faces of people I knew reiterated over and over again until their contours were no longer discernible in the endless parades of geometric shapes marching to the music of millions of grandfathers muttering eternal stories to innumerable children. Two roads had diverged in the gray woods but they had both led to the same place, would always and forever lead to the same place, as all roads, I understood, do. Above, the darkening sky burst with the light of tuna sandwich triangles arranged in infinite identical circles, dancing.