All summer I was here, sometimes hiking, sometimes running. There’s a web of trails and it’s possible to go quite a long way. I spent most of my time in those warm months, though, on a loop trail that goes up to a saddle (from where, on a clear day, you can see all the way to the San Francisco Peaks) and continues above a small valley, then heads steeply south, crossing a usually dry creek twice before heading back uphill and connecting with itself. It’s a nice trail through piñon and juniper, manzanita and scrub oak, and it’s rare to encounter anyone else on the three-mile loop, except perhaps one of my neighbors.
This morning, though, I was in a bad mood because of some distressing news. It’s been cold here and I’ve had a touch of cabin fever this winter break, as storm after storm has moved across northern Arizona. I knew that a key to my feeling better would be to get outdoors, in spite of the weather, or maybe because of it. I wanted to be alone, not to have to bother making nice conversation with anyone. And so I was a little disappointed to notice footprints in the snow - one of my neighbors, perhaps, already heading out on the trail. The prints only led in one direction, so I knew that he was still out there. I wondered and worried a bit that we’d each infringe upon the other’s solitude. At any rate, I followed these footprints through the gate, through the night’s snowfall. Here and there other tracks - rabbit, deer, maybe skunk - crossed or briefly followed the trail. It was so quiet, the way it only is when snow muffles all.
When I arrived at the first junction, where the trail heads south, I paused. My neighbor’s prints followed my usual route. I scanned that trail but couldn’t see any other sign of someone on that path. Straight ahead of me, to the west, another trail stretched far, covered in a thin layer of snow unmarred and pristine. A voice beckoned, “Go further,” and so I did, lines of Frost tumbling in my mind. I reached another gate, and still the voice urged me to go on. I rattled the slightly frozen latch and opened it, crested another saddle and felt my breath catch as I caught a glimpse of the view to the northwest. Granite Mountain was shrouded in heavy grey clouds and snow. Briefly the clouds lifted, and then a shaft of light broke through and lit up an area at the base of the mountain. It is a beautiful mountain, even under the most ordinary of circumstances. But on that morning, with the light striking it just so, with the clouds surrounding it, the mountain was extraordinary.
I hiked on a while before turning back, having found the peace and solitude I was seeking, along with something else that I couldn’t quite name. In some places the snow had melted on the trail, obliterating my neighbor’s footprints and my own. I thought of how, if I’d waited until later, I wouldn’t have seen the other set of footprints, and I wouldn’t have ventured down the other path. I wouldn’t have even known that I’d missed something unmistakably significant in the reward of going further, down the path less traveled. And I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a message there for me, on the last day of the old year, about what rewards might be revealed in the new year, simply by going further.