A squawk in the woods
Of course, I smelled it first.
Not that it reached the olfactory bulb in my brain instantly. Before that could happen, the stinging scent had to weave its way through the unresolved grudges, warbler species, old locker combinations and grocery lists jumbled up there. When I say I’m “lost in thought,” it’s literal. Send in the Saint Bernard, and don’t forget the brandy.
Eventually the smell registered, though: Someone is smoking a cigarette. On a trail. In a state park. The Ranger Rick-meets-Miss Manners in me flared. I prepared to pounce.
Before I continue, I have to confess I am much better at raising my hackles than doing anything with them once they are en garde. As the last child and only girl in my family, my primary riposte was a whiney “I’m TELL-IN’,” not infrequently accompanied by tears. Not only was this an ineffective deterrent; it also usually resulted in a — what is the correct term here? Native American? — sunburn or a noogie, which is why I would later learn to reserve my complaining for the page.
On the morning in question, I was “hiking” at Bradbury State Park, near Pownal, about 20 minutes from Portland. Please forgive the “hiking” jab, but after a summer spent stomping up and down western Maine’s mountains, summiting Bradbury (469 feet) takes little longer than cresting Munjoy Hill, even without the benefit of a slice from Otto en route to fortify me.
The night before, I’d checked the park’s website and learned that it opened at nine. I arrived a few minutes thereafter, thinking I might have some of the trails to myself. The gate was not yet manned, and two cars in front of me with Vermont plates bypassed the honor-system fee box while I glowered. I folded my three dollars, strode to the box and sanctimoniously slid them in the slot. I had it in mind to find their cars and give them what-for, but first I had to locate a space in the jammed lot of this park that had “just” opened. People were already spread out at picnic tables. The back hatches of SUVs were flung open, where cyclists and runners sat, lacing up shoes and adjusting gear. Kids shrieked as they chased each other. Moms sprawled in lawn chairs. Where had all these people come from? I felt like I had crashed a family reunion. I slapped on my boots and thought I might make it onto one of the trails before the pancake breakfast started. In my haste, I gave the Green Mountain scofflaws a bye, even though I passed right next to their cars.
Once on the trail, calm pervaded — for at least a couple minutes. I had opted for the .2-mile jog up to the summit, thinking I might catch some raptor migration (what a dork does for fun on an early-autumn Saturday). En route, I passed a young Goth couple — she sporting dark purple hair, he in basic black — who were on their descent, probably having just finished up some sort of overnight pagan ritual. I made a note to watch for animal carcasses as I climbed.
When I arrived at the top, I took in the expanse of forest that stretches clear to Casco Bay. Soon, however, I was joined by a young man and woman and their pit bull. Before I could say hello, they launched into a selfie photo session. The man’s job was to hoist and hold the dog across his chest, so it could also be in the picture. In the old days, this would be where an unassuming bystander would step in and offer to snap a shot, but this bystander’s presence had not been acknowledged, despite the fact the couple had to stand directly in front of me to get the panorama in their portrait. I had it in mind to educate them on the finer points of trail etiquette (be friendly to everyone; you never know when you are going to have to be carted down a mountain), but what was I going to say? “Um, excuse me. Ever heard of Hello? By the way, you’re blocking my view.” No, it was easier to dip into the woods and see if I could find a corner of the park to call my own.
Once on the loop trail, I encountered trail runners, solo and in packs. As each approached, I gamely stepped off the path so they wouldn’t have to break their stride. Most of the young women — all legs and blonde ponytails — were too busy yabbering to notice the gesture. The burly guys seemed to expect it. Oh, to just haul off with a giant “YOU’RE WELCOME” would’ve been so gratifying, but I knew my words would be lost in the wind.
I wish I could be more like my friend Patty. I remember the time we were crossing a street, when I lived in San Francisco, and a well-dressed businesswoman in front of us casually bent down and placed her iced-coffee cup in the middle of the crosswalk. She didn’t toss it or drop it. She deliberately set it down. My instant reaction was to think, Jerk. Patty’s was to swoop in, pick up the cup and stride after the woman, repeating, “Excuse me,” until she caught up. When she did, she thrust the cup at her and said, “I think you forgot something.” The woman, so stunned at being confronted, accepted the object and hobbled away on her heels. “That was awesome,” I said. Patty looked at me. “What?”
When I finally found a trail that led me away from the fray — a connector to Tryon Mountain in the North Yarmouth Land Trust — I felt I could finally exhale. I’d just begun to sort through some of that garbage in my brain when a wildebeest charged up from behind and blasted ahead on the trail. OK, not a wildebeest. Just yet another off-leash dog, this one followed by a hippie/hipster trail runner with a big beard. I stepped aside to let him catch up with his pooch and he gave me a big, “How are ya?” My inside self responded, “Before or after your dog scared the shit out of me?” But my coward self just bowed her head and muttered, “Leash your dog, please,” as he passed. Only the asters and oak leaves could hear me.
When I returned to the main trail, I encountered several adults and children marching behind a man hoisting a large American flag. Next came a group on horseback. What was next? A bunch of Shriners in their circus-sized ATVs?
It was at that moment the cigarette smoke tingled my nostrils. I looked up and saw a happy family tableau: three or four young kids, a mom, a grandma and granddad (probably my age) trailing behind, granddad having just dropped his butt on the trail and ground it into the dirt.
So what was I going to do? Keep the peace and say nothing? My father was a pro at calling out people’s bad behavior — those idiots who didn’t observe no-wake zones, golfers who hit into you on the fairway, drivers who drove too slowly (never those who drove too fast) — but not with Patty’s effortless elegance. He was a horn blower, a head- and fist-shaker. And where did it get him? Dead at 64 of a heart attack. I learned long ago that all that anger was pointless. But this was a state park, for crying out loud. And though my walk had been everything but tranquil, this was too much.
“Excuse me,” I said, summoning up my best Patty. No response. Another “Excuse me” — this time a little louder, so not only Smokey Joe, but the rest of the clan stopped and looked back. I was standing over the butt. “Are you going to leave this here?” They all eyed me. I stood my ground. “Oh, ho!” he said merrily. “I just wanted to make sure it was out.” I maintained my gaze. “I understand,” I said, “but this is a park. Could you pick it up, please?” Then I resumed walking, threading my way through the kids and the women without looking back to see if he did so. I didn’t shake my head or wag my finger or say to the kiddos, “Now don’t you grow up to be like your grandfather. When you smoke in the woods, pick your butts up when you’re done.”
I wanted to stop by the ranger station on my way out to report some of this activity, but I figured I had done my vigilante duty for the day. Besides, as I said, it’s so much easier to complain on the page. I haven’t received a noogie in years.
Elizabeth Peavey carps here on a monthly basis. Duck and cover.