I turn off from my walk along a familiar dirt road to explore a path I’ve seen for years, but never walked. The trail is wide. From the edge of the dirt road it disappears into the dark woods along the side of a small stream.
At first the trail is simply a flat, worn area. It’s treeless and bare, but soon native species of trees press against the sides of the path. Then stones line the edge, first on one side, then another.
It slowly dawns on me that I must be on an ancient roadway. The first stone walls I see are fallen, but soon I am walking along walls that look to be as tall and as straight as they day they were built.
Although worn by the trails of animals, it doesn’t look as if this path has seen much human traffic for decades. I come upon a two-foot deep gash in the path where the spring torrents have washed out the dirt and dug down to slick bedrock. I take delicate footsteps across the icy surface and the sharp rocks of the tiny canyon.
I walk past a couple of little meadows – empty openings in the mysterious woods. At a space smaller than a town green I stop to inspect one such clearing. It seems too small to have been caused by fire, too isolated for a paddock, too regularly-shaped to be made by nature.
The way here is steep – I’m out of breath from climbing. Despite the stone walls, this hillside seems too steep for cattle, and farming this precipitous land would be out of the question. There’s no evidence of logging, or even of old cellar holes.
I pause to catch my breath. I have been following a trim stone wall up the slope. Suddenly, a gap in the wall appears. Whoever built the stone wall deliberately left an opening. Through the space I see traces of an even older, fainter road that vanishes into a tangle of snowy woods. It would have been easy to miss this phantom path. If I had not stopped to catch my breath I would have walked right past it. Any modern traveler going through this gateway would soon be lost. No one has turned down this path for a very long time.
So much of our own past remains a mystery. We see the remnants of buildings, and roads, and houses. We see the shapes of old fields and the traces of ancient pathways. We read the names on the tombstones in our graveyards and yet we know so little of the generations of those who lived in our own neighborhoods before us.
I stare at the lonely, faint road from centuries past. Then turn and move along my own pathway into the future.
This is Alan Boye just walking the hills of Vermont.
–Alan Boye teaches at Lyndon State College.