The Trail Less Taken

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Orange is not red. The two colors are different, but both are equally important to this story. My newly acquired inability to read trail maps correctly and one very pesky visitor that found us along the way are also essential parts. Walk with us, Dear Reader, and follow carefully so as not to get lost through all the twists and turns in the story I call “The Trail Less Taken.”

With temperatures at record highs, what would you do? Stay inside and turn the AC down as far as it can go? Find the nearest swimming pool and spend the day under a giant umbrella? Or let the kids play with sprinkler toys in the backyard and perhaps even set up that old Slip-n-Slide? Last week when the temperature reached 100 degrees, the Girly Girls and Yours Truly didn’t do any of those things.

Nope, we thought it was a good idea to take a hike. And by “we,” I mean me. Little did I know a relentless foe would chase us through the forest, we would get totally lost, and end up stumbling onto an abandoned, haunted campground located nowhere on any map.

We had been to the Ridge Nature Area once before but weren’t too familiar with the 308 acres that provides six hiking paths of different difficulty levels. After downloading the trail map on my phone and spraying ample amounts of bug spray on every inch of exposed skin on everybody, we started walking.

I followed the Girly Girls as they headed off down the blue trail just a little before sunrise as they debated whose turn it was to be the leader. The trail is rated as a low difficulty and follows alongside the largest of the three creeks in the nature area Off Burch Road in Fayetteville.

We didn’t bring any snacks – this was the first mistake. We thought the hike was only going to take an hour – this was the second mistake. And yes, by “we,” again I mean me.

The noise of the world quickly disappeared behind us as we walked. Outfitted with a carved walking stick in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, we soon found ourselves immersed in a forest of old-growth hardwood trees. The canopy above muted the harsh summer sunlight, turning it into a soft glow illuminating the carpet of wild ferns far below. The ferns covered the ground in dark green fronds, reaching out in all directions.

All we had to do was follow the blue path until the red one crossed. Taking the red path to the left would lead us back to our car; to the right would lead us to a dead end. After a half hour of hiking in the cool, peaceful woods, an orange path crossed. Orange not being red, we continued along the blue path. This was our third mistake.

Another half hour of walking brought us to an outcropping of rocks and a much-needed water break. Resting on the rocks was our fourth mistake. It was during our water break when we were visited by our unwanted guest. Mister Horsefly.

The horsefly was ginormous. I know this because when he landed on my back, the Girly Girls screamed, “Papa! There’s a ginormous horse fly on your back!” The painful fifth mistake.

Important note to Readers: when a ginormous horsefly lands on your back, don’t tell your hiking buddies to knock it off — especially when both are still holding their walking sticks.

For the next ten minutes, we walked/ran through the woods trying to elude our flying attacker, but to no avail. He was relentless as he landed on each of us. We were left with only one option — get off the main path and find one less traveled, leaving Mr. Horsefly far behind.

Luckily, there was just such a path up ahead on the left, so we took it. Taking a random unmarked path in an area you’re not familiar with was our sixth mistake.

After hiking up the third monster hill, the ferns swallowed what remained of the unmarked path. Stopping for another water break, I looked around, then down at my phone for GPS directions.

Reader’s Note: When you’re in the middle of a thick forest of old-growth trees, there is no cell reception. The Girly Girls saw me searching the surrounding area for any hint of the path, then asked if we were lost. With confidence I answered and pointed, “Nope, not lost. Just going up this hill.”

We started walking again with no clue where we were going. Exhausted, we finally reached the top of the hill and stumbled into an abandoned haunted campground. I knew the campground was haunted because the Girly Girls said, “This place is haunted. Let’s go, Papa.”

I wanted to stay and explore the dilapidated building and surrounding area, but the girls suddenly screamed and ran down a path leaving me all by myself. The girls didn’t scream and run away because the campground was haunted. Mr. Horsefly had returned, and he was currently crawling his way up my shirt.

Quickly I caught up with the girls and found the orange path again. The girls looked at the map and said, “Papa, there is no red trail. It’s orange.” I realized they were right and followed the orange trail back to our car.

Our grand hiking adventure was recounted repeatedly throughout the rest of the day. Each time, Mr. Horsefly grew in size and the abandoned campground became creepier.

The next week weather was much cooler, so we drove back to the Ridge Nature Area to brave another hike. This time we were well prepared with ample bug spray, water, snacks, and our walking sticks. Parking in the same location as the week before, we were about to get out of the car for some much-needed exercise when the Girly Girls started to scream, pointing at my door window.

Yes, you guessed it. Mr. Horsefly had landed on the glass, just waiting for us to get out. The girls wanted to leave so we left Mr. Horsefly, and the walking trails, behind us and headed to the new rock-climbing gym in town. All climbers are secured with double safeties making it almost impossible to get hurt.

Almost is the key word in that last sentence. But the story of our adventure at the climbing gym, mistake number seven, and which one of us got hurt will have to wait for another time. And no, swatting at Mr. Horsefly is not how I got hurt.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001.]