One of my favorite childhood activities was exploring the woods behind our house. Because I didn’t like adventuring alone, I would force my younger brother Matty to go with me. I enlisted him to help me assemble first aid kits filled with Dixie cups, Q-tips, band-aids, gauze, and ointments from mom and dad’s medicine cabinet, and to help make sandwiches for our lunch boxes – his Ghostbusters, mine Strawberry Shortcake. Then I would pack a notepad and pen and we’d set off along the well-worn paths.
Every few feet we stopped to flip over rocks and roll logs to discover what type of nature was living underneath. Sometimes we poked at it with sticks to see how it moved. Dug holes just to watch the soil change colors. Or pulled apart flowers to find out what made them pretty.
After a few hours (or more likely 20 minutes) we set up camp and I would make up answers to his questions because I was older and supposed to know things he didn’t. For some reason, saying, ‘I am not sure’ was never an option. Once we got to wherever it was I decided we were going I’d leave notes in the trees and under stones. I’m not sure who I wanted to find them, or if I really expected a response. But sometimes I’d go back alone and recover the messages to no one and find them waterlogged or lodged in branches nearby. I still wonder if anyone ever read one.
When we returned home I often embellished the hike crafting danger around every bend, like the time we were shot at by unseen enemies, and the day we were almost kidnapped by teenagers. Two decades later I live 3,000 miles from Matty and still love walking in the woods. I’m not sure how old I was when I stopped packing a first aid kit and started simply hoping for the best. At what age I stopped pretending danger lurked behind every tree. Maybe it was because I didn’t have anyone else to look out for anymore. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned that not everything that can hurt you is hiding in the shadows.
While I am grateful for all the years Matty played along when I’d make up stories that could never be true and for all the times I got us lost and he found our way home, I realized this winter that I was taking unnecessary risks. And not only with myself, but with the health and safety of my friends I convinced to go wandering around in the woods with me. I realized that if I don’t know how to take care of myself, I will never be able to take care of anyone else.
So this spring I signed up for a wilderness first aid class so I could stop making things up as I go along. Because the truth is, what worked for you in the past is not always enough. There are some problems you can’t fix with bandages and kisses alone. Because at some point you realize there is no one out there with all the answers. And that if you lose sight of your path, you have to be able find your own way out of the woods.