When I was a kid we used to camp every summer at a park in Ludington on Lake Michigan. The campsites were pretty packed together, but the beach was long and you could find plenty of isolated areas. There were also lots of trails for hiking and biking, and I liked taking my bike for long rides during the day.
One journey was particularly memorable. After exhausting all the wooded trails throughout the park, I decided to venture onto the road just outside the park. I had a little change, and figured I would find a convenience store or something.
I was maybe ten or eleven, and I had plenty of experience riding my bike along main roads. We lived in a rural area, and any destination was a pretty tiring bike ride. I often rode to a party store a few miles away, or Fort Custer had a beach that was within a (somewhat) reasonable ride. These rides pushed me to my young bike riding limits, but were totally worth it just to be at a destination. Those of you who grew up in the country know-
So it wasn’t a completely crazy idea for me to venture beyond the park. The problem is, sometimes when you are riding on an unfamiliar rural road, you kind of lose track of just how far you have gone. You don’t have a good concept of how much energy will be required to make the return trip. Also, in this example, I found disappointment. There appeared to be zero destinations- which, of course, made me keep going further in hopes of not having wasted my time.
So when I finally decided to turn back I was ready for it to end. I was tired, thirsty, disappointed- and it was getting late. I started walking my bike along the highway, wondering if I would ever make it back before dark. I wondered at what point my parents would start to worry. Would they look for me outside of the park? I started to panic. I started to cry.
I had felt like this on one other occasion when I got myself lost in the woods. I spent hours alone in the woods around my house; I especially liked the area down the street that had trails. It used to be a cross-country skiing spot.
If you have ever been in that situation, you know the feeling you get in that first moment when you realize that you don’t know how to get back. In the woods, I knew that I could get to a high point and look for the main road. The woods weren’t that expansive, after all. But I wasn’t sure how far of a walk I would have, and I wasn’t sure I could get back before dark. I felt overwhelmed.
That’s where my mind was out on that road with my bike.
I wasn’t a stupid kid. I knew not to trust strangers. But when a car pulled over and asked if I needed a ride….I said yes. I pretended that my brakes were acting funny because I didn’t want them to know how stupid I had been by riding too far. I didn’t want them to know how tired I was. It was a short drive, but as I sat in that car I thought about all the ways I could escape if they kidnapped me. I thought about what a fool I was for getting into their car. I was terrified. I was also relieved to be there.
They dropped me off at the park entrance and I thanked them. I never told my parents.
I’d like to say that there is something that could have prevented me from getting into that car, but it’s no use. When we feel desperate we do all sorts of things in spite of knowing better. And kids are even bigger risk takers in these situations. They often haven’t learned the truth about how bad things don’t just happen to other people. And unfortunately, that is something you can only learn through experience.
If I stop and think about it, I have felt that same panic in other areas of my life since. That feeling that I have ventured too far; when I am suddenly unsure of exactly where I am on this path, or if I can possibly get back on track in time. I have felt it at my job, with my personal goals, my friendships….parenting.
Sometimes it’s like being lost in the woods. You know it’s going to be a long walk, but you also know what to do and that you kind of have no choice but to do it. And other times it is like that bike ride. You chase after something and become disappointed. Maybe you just fail. Sometimes you have easy ways out, and you take risks you aren’t sure you should take and hope it pays off. You quit your job, put your trust in the wrong people, stay in a bad relationship…. or you make compromises where you never thought you would.
And all the while, you are secretly mapping out your escape plan. Just in case.