* Your feet are but followers of your imagination *

The OutdoorPersons (OP) series continues with some thoughts expressed by my son Meghan. I started taking him out in the hills right since when he could hardly stand. Then came a time when I left it to him to ‘take up’ hiking and climbing or not. He goes when his fancy takes him. And going by the few things I know, he has found his own joys in the outdoors. The OP series is about people who are not necessarily famous or have remarkable achievements that get talked about. But they do light up the sky once in a while like meteors that streak across a purple sky, quite often unseen and unadmired. Each outdoorperson has his/her own ‘deep play’. The OP series is homage to that individuality and an attempt to have colourful characters blaze across our skies.

When I have no particular place to be at while walking on a trail, it is extremely easy for my mind to wander off it and for my feet to follow. Once I leave a trail, there are thorns, boulders, thick shrubs, mossy slabs of basalt and loose rocks that tumble down the slope, threatening to take me with them, but that does not matter. By this time, I have decided that I do need to be at some particular place and I am going to figure out how to make it there. I have to crouch, crawl, slide and jump, but, this is only when I am not stuck and do not have to stop, take a look around and decide I have to go back a bit and see if I can find a different path. And this is the real challenge.

Before I go out, my father usually reminds me to take a look back once in a while to see how the path looks from the other side. Even while walking on trails, due to my lack of experience, I often find myself lost, despite having followed the advice. Recognizing the same scenery from the other side, which the mind has never seen, is a formidable task. Now, add a layer of excitement to this and replace the trail with, well, what is not the trail.

Every time I stop to take a step back, I probably end up somewhere I have never been before. Of course, the severity is not consistent for each such incident and sometimes I can retrace my steps, but it is in this labyrinth that I keep going deeper. 

I have completely lost the trail now and have entered thick and unmerciful vegetation, which punishes me with its thorns every time I make the slightest mistake, making holes in my t-shirt that remind me of my cat when he is annoyed at me lifting him up. I struggle, taking each step carefully, trying to collect myself every time I get stuck in some shrubbery. My brain decides my body has had enough epinephrine and decides to take a different approach. I have now started looking back more often and the landscape has started to make more sense.

Slowly, a clearer image starts to form in my head. I know the general lay of the land and I decide to play a bit smarter. I spot a narrow valley through the foliage and see my way out in it. Along this slope, there are multiple small streams that confluence at some point and feed into a much larger stream which is very close to where I started my walk. Reaching this new destination has taken priority now.

The process continues, I move towards the stream and hear the faint trickle of water. The slope steepens and the soil becomes wetter as I get closer. After a brief struggle with a barbed bush, I manage to get past it and now am standing right over the stream. It is essentially a seven foot drop with its walls consisting of loose mud, with a dense row of shrubs at the bottom. Beyond this row, I see the water and more importantly, the lack of any obstacles inside the stream itself. There are no bushes, no boulders and no thorns in this narrow brook. I look around for a way down and spot a fallen tree which provides an easy bridge into the stream. The walk down is one of relief as I balance myself on the trunk, jump the last couple of feet, splashing the mud everywhere, and dust myself off. From here on in, it is nothing but a gentle slope down to the starting point, with not much to worry about. 

I spot a very familiar trail after a few minutes and jog on it towards the starting point of this entire journey. I step onto the tar road and take a deep breath, right when the first drop lands in front of me. The gentle rustle of rain begins and the cool wind carries along with it a sense of tranquility. I may not have reached what I had imagined while labouring away from the trail, but the thrill felt made the entire experience more than worth it. There is only one thing left to do before I walk back to the cosy comfort of my home. I take a look back.

From Shantanu Pandit: There are incredible rewards of going offtrail. For instance, for my son, it turned up one day in the form of a python lying motionless in a stream. Of course the father in me wonders and worries when he goes off on a jaunt. But then I have always seen that he has a good sense of the layout of the land he is walking in. That is key. Situational awareness. Offtrail or in life. One can then wander and be safe and happy.

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