Once upon a time, my father and my grandfather and myself made a tradition of hiking in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. We flew out to Denver, and proceeded to drive far up into the mountains, to a charming little tourist attraction called Estes Park. There are elk everywhere. They saunter through the town as though they own it, stopping to mope around in the middle of the road or to graze on the local people’s flower patches. There are also, as it turns out, a lot of restaurants that sell elk burgers.
The whole affair was absolutely delightful, and we made a couple trips (always during the summer) to that same spot over the course of three or four years. We would wake up at the crack of dawn to watch the sunrise paint the mountains the most brilliant shade of gold you have ever seen. Then we would spend an hour at The Egg and I, a very nice home-style breakfast place that puts plenty of cheese on your scrambled eggs, makes waffles as big as your head, and brings you great big overflowing mugs of hot chocolate with a huge blob of whipped cream on top.
After breakfast, it was off to one hiking spot or another. Each trail was more wonderful than the last. Sometimes the trails were surrounded by trees: some massive, and seemingly older than the earth; others young and lithe, bent into strange and amusing shapes, as though they were hugging one another, or dancing for joy. Other paths took us up to the highest edges of reality, where the wind whipped through our hair and we could see for a million miles in every direction. There was always water, whether in the form of monstrous roaring waterfalls that made the ground seem to shake and filled the air with a refreshingly cold mist, or as grandly serene lakes, that seemed ridiculously out of place at the tops of such huge, rugged mountains.
One day, as we were standing staring at one such lake, we realized that it was nearly dinner time and that we had forgotten our lunch and our water. We decided to head back. My grandfather assured us that he would be right behind us, and wandered off to take one last picture or identify one last flower. My father and I meandered back towards the trail.
Soon, though, the forest began to seem unfamiliar. There was no one else on the trail, as far as we could see, and a massive mountain loomed before us which we did not recognize. Suddenly, a beautiful quail hopped into our path, followed by a dozen or so chicks.
Superstitious people might have seen the quail as an omen of some kind.
Cautious people might have enjoyed the quail as a pleasant end to a pleasant hike, and decided that they should turn around or at least wait for Grandpa to catch up.
Clever people might have deduced that quails avoid people, and therefore that they were probably headed in the wrong direction.
We just thought they were pretty, so we followed them down the path. They soon darted off into the forest, where we lost them before we could snap a photo. But they had been sufficiently distracting to push us once again closer to the looming mountain peak and farther from home.
By this point, we were hungry and thirsty and tired to the bone. But there was no way we could have gone down the wrong path… was there? No, that would be ridiculous. Anyway, we were walking away from the mountain when we first walked this path, so that’s why we didn’t see it. And it was starting to get late, which is why there weren’t any people around. So we decided, and so we continued onwards.
Thereafter there was a good deal of moaning and grumbling, and after many more long minutes which seemed like hours, we finally decided to turn around. Now, of course, that path seemed far too long as well, as we had wandered in the wrong direction for quite some time. However, we eventually made it back to the little parking lot at the beginning of the trail. Grandpa was waiting there, chatting nonchalantly with a forest ranger who was preparing to send out a search party for us.
There was much rejoicing, and we rushed back to Estes Park for vitamin water and elk burgers, which tasted to us like the refreshments of the heavens.
What doesn’t kill you can make for a pretty good story later.