I’ve lived the last year of my life convinced that I was maliciously lied to by a stranger who I met on a trail in the river bluffs last New Year’s Day. Some of you might remember that story: It was almost dark on New Year’s Day 2016 when I convinced myself I was lost on some rogue trail in the Bluffwoods Conservation Area about 10 miles north of Atchison in Missouri.
I could sense my impending doom as I trudged breathlessly up a rugged, snow-covered hill. It was dusk and I was wholly unprepared to spend a night in the woods. Then, at the moment my signal-challenged phone finally put me through to my parents, I found the way out.
My appreciation for life was real when I sat down in my car outside the park a free man.
I’ve been back to Bluffwoods several times since last New Year’s Day and now consider myself very familiar with the place. Turns out, that trail isn’t a rogue-blazed anything – it’s just a very difficult trail unintended for New Year’s newbies like myself. Today, though, it’s a favorite trail of mine, and I hike it often.
I probably would have been much more rational about my situation last year had I not bumped into this strange couple before picking up the trail of fate. When we crossed paths on top of a bluff, they explained to me the trail didn’t end at the lookout that I was coming from.
Just keep going, they said. It doesn’t look like you can, but the trail keeps on, they said. I was intrigued but had to book-mark the advice in my mind for another time. I was leaving when we spoke and that’s when the chaos started.
I’ve pressed on past the lookout several times in the last year looking for the extension of the trail. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving morning this year when I went for a hike that I could see, without the foliage, that the trail does indeed go on. If you follow it far enough, you find an old-looking, wooden trail sign, one that looks totally unlike the others in the park, but official nonetheless.
Because I picked up the trail of death last year after parting ways with that couple, I’ve been almost fully convinced that I was lied to, wrongfully accusing them in my thoughts of trying to get me lost in the woods that day. But it is really there. I’m very sorry, strange couple.
But where was I? Thanksgiving this year and I find the trail and the truth.
Perfect, I thought, New Year’s Day is coming up again. What a perfect chance to explore this trail. I did just that on Sunday. I arrived at noon to Bluffwoods, hiked the trail of terror to the lookout, then went for it. Except, you can’t go more than 150 feet on the trail without its thorns trying to eat you alive or the brush trying to trip you up.
I wanted to press on, but these old thoughts of this couple were coming back as I considered how to proceed. I reasoned I shouldn’t do it alone, if it really was a trap, and turned around, consulting the map about where else I might pick up this trail, maybe back into it.
I was doing just that at a familiar intersection of trails when I heard voices in the distance. They were coming my way, so I packed up and moved on. As I rounded the corner, who else do I happen to bump into but the strange couple?
Not again! Is it death that’s come to claim me?
No, turns out hiking the park is a New Year’s tradition for them, like it’s becoming for me. I stopped them because they looked familiar, and they produced GPS-tracking maps on their phones that proved the trail really does go on. I’ll be back out to try it again, but if you never hear from me again, you know where to look.