Again, the great philosopher Lao Tzu had set the tone for my rambling. This time it was put forth in these words from the original Taoist: “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
January continued to be unseasonably warm as I set out to hike a new stretch of the WAG Trail along the upper Genesee River in New York. The deep snowcover had melted rapidly, and the Genesee was flowing high and muddy. This section of the WAG Trail (former Wellsville-Addison-Galeton Railroad), from the village of Shongo south to the Hawks Road access, is about 2.5 miles long, an easy walk on level ground that often parallels the trout stream.
The former railroad bed has been “improved” by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The recent grading project has made a difference in accessibility. Formerly, when walking back on the trail after wading upstream with a fly rod, I had to fight the brush in this location as nature reclaimed the railroad bed. Now I had an easy stroll of it, comfortable on a mid-month afternoon, a meditative ramble that gave rise to thoughts and, for better or worse, the realization that springtime anglers would also have an easier time of reaching these seldom seen haunts. At least the WAG Trail now was gated and had signs prohibiting the passage of motorized vehicles.
The trail here is a straight walk on almost any stretch you take, a hike that seems a bit unnatural at first to someone who prefers to bushwhack or to take a more circuitous route along the contours of the earth. But the old railroads of this country weren’t designed for recreation. They were business oriented, and their lay-out took the practical path, the most efficient and straightforward route possible. In this new age of the leisure class, the old railroad beds were being redesigned, becoming part of the “rails to trails” phenomenon.
Heading south outside of Shongo, the trail left the riverbank for a while, traversing swampy ground and deciduous woodland, sometimes offering views of the flanking hillsides of the valley. Whereas the path was often straight and level, my thoughts strayed peripherally and toward the ground, as if to compensate for the linear.
Remnants of a wild turkey lay on the surface of a slough. Wing feathers separated from each other and left watery spaces for imagination to immerse inside. A chickadee, a nuthatch and a woodpecker flitted through the beech wood, each one leaving a cheerful note behind. The notes were reminders that, in several months time, the trail would be ringing with the sights and sounds of many frogs and songbirds.
Unmindful of my end-point for the day (the point where, last January, I began a trailwalk to the border of New York and Pennsylvania), I found myself at the Hawks Road access to the river. It was here that I often took a fishermans’ path to the river, and it was here that I now stumbled on a large black carcass.
The medium-sized bear hadn’t been lying there long. The last bits of snow were melting from its back, were gone from the head and sides where darkness in the fur gave off more heat. It was sad: another victim of a slug or bullet from the recent hunting season, or possibly the victim of a passing vehicle. Lying in a ditch beyond the parking lot, the bear didn’t simply die there of disease or old age. Wild animals, about to die of natural causes, find good places where the earth embraces them. This bear was a stark reminder, like the remnants of a turkey on the water, that pastoral nature has brute undertones, a harsh yet beautiful reality of tooth and claw.
Naturally the human element was here as well. Life comes and goes with every moment. “Hello/Goodbye” sang the Beatles. Remnant railroad ties, pushed to trailside by the grader, sang Goodbye, and the cinders of the bed then sang Hello.
The walker in me recollected parts of “The Continual Farewell,” a poem of mine from Talking to the Owls. The walker spoke of watching waterfowl on the Shenandoah River: “What resides on earth forever/ Teaches the departure and return./ It eludes trembling thought/ Like a bird swimming underneath the surface,/ All the farewells dark and secret underwing–“
A sad thing, maybe, but perhaps a happy thing as well. What resides on earth forever, through thick and thin, for the moment and throughout all time, gives meaning to this life. It can be as profound as the Genesee River in all its raging glory. It can be as simple as a diving duck, bobbing into light once more.