Today was perfect mountain biking weather—not too hot, not too cold, not too buggy. It hasn't rained in over a week, so the trails were nice and dry (the conservation land where I normally ride is very marshy, so flooding is a frequent issue), plus the leaves haven't started falling yet, so the ground wasn't smothered in a blanket of wet detritus.
I've been to this conservation land dozens of times, and have come to know the trails intimately. I've only gotten lost once. It was three or four years ago, on an unseasonably warm November afternoon, and I'd biked all the way to the top of a small hill underneath the power lines—the farthest I'd ever traveled on this particular trail.
I followed the trail down the other side of the hill to the edge of a marsh, where it vanished into the water. Some three hundred feet away, I could see what looked like the same trail emerging on the opposite shore, so I assumed it had just been flooded. I couldn't find a way around, but I was convinced that this trail connected to one of the others I'd ridden before, and that it would be a simple matter for me to wade across and complete the loop.
Not so much.
I kept slipping on submerged rocks as I walked my bike into the marsh. And despite the warmth in the air, the water was absolutely frigid. About twenty feet in—teeth chattering, waist deep and sinking deeper, keenly aware that the sun was setting—I was forced to admit that the marsh was a permanent fixture, and the trail on the other side a mirage. I turned back, defeated.
Why am I telling you all this? Because today I crossed the marsh.
I rode back to the spot that had defeated me years before, determined to push through. It was earlier in the day—earlier in the season—and the water was downright warm. I found a shallow section where I could ford the marsh (much to the dismay of the frogs who lived there), and splashed across in a matter of minutes.
There was indeed a trail on the opposite shore. It led up and over another hill through some pretty gnarly terrain, comprised mostly of loose, jagged rocks. I was sure I was going to flip over the handlebars at any moment. But I made it to the bottom safely, only to find that the trail had vanished again—this time into a thick snarl of brush and bramble.
I wasn't ready to admit defeat a second time. I'd made it this far, hadn't I?
I abandoned my bike and shoved my way through the undergrowth, stumbling out into a field of young Christmas trees pushing up from the scrub. (I'm sure those trees would be horrified to learn that in three months' time they'll be propped in parlors and draped in tinsel.) At this point, it was clear I'd blundered onto someone's private property. Not wanting to be rude (or to be caught trespassing), I skirted around the edge of the field, hunting for the trail I knew existed.
I never found it. I'm reasonably confident it was on the far side of the field, past another impenetrable tangle of vegetation. But even if I could somehow push my way through, I knew I'd never be able to drag my bike with me. So, scraped and bruised, I staggered back the way I'd come and retraced my tracks to the trail head, defeated again.
If there's a point to this story, it's that, in my experience, the best way out isn't always through. (Sorry, Frost.) Sometimes you need to start over. Sometimes you need to trudge back through the sludge and find a different trail, rather than blindly forging ahead simply because this is the path you chose.
I've recently been forced to confront this truth, both in my writing and in my life. Knowing when to push through and when to turn back is an invaluable skill—one that I'm not sure everyone learns. It's allowed me not only to be more forgiving of myself and my work, but to be more productive as well.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go toss my soaking sneakers in the dryer.