It’s unusually warm for a mid-April jog, and to my surprise I find the snow to be completely melted on Woodland Trails. I set off with an extra spring in my step. A woman passes by with her baby in a stroller. We make eye contact. I nod, she smiles, we move on.
These silent exchanges are commonplace. A secret agreement is made in the trails not to disturb one another. We are all here for our own reasons.
For as long as I can remember living in Elk River, I’ve been coming to the trails. Back then, I was kindergarten-age—wide-eyed and possessing an eternal urge to explore. Once my family and I discovered the trail system connected to our neighborhood, we began taking regular bike rides down the old railroad grade, paved over with smooth asphalt.
On one particularly memorable ride, I decided to go off on my own, only to get turned around in a massive maze of trails. Luckily, a policeman riding an all-terrain vehicle found me and helped me find my way back to the group.
Looking back on that day, I find it incredibly coincidental that I came across a police officer. Sure, young kids get lost all the time and eventually find their way back to their families. But in my thirteen-odd years on the trails, I have only once come across a policeman—during a time when I needed help finding my way home.
I’ve always found what I needed on these trails. Essentially, they became my own personal Room of Requirement. Although I didn’t know it then, the trails would become everything I needed, and the only place where I could get it. Woodland Trails became my sanctuary, the only place I had in my life where I didn’t have to worry about being disturbed.
The trail system was developed from a grant given to the city of Elk River, and includes one main trail stretching about five miles. Numerous paved and unpaved trails branch off of it to cover 340 acres of woods and wetlands. During most seasons, the trail is enclosed in a tunnel of trees, completely blocking off the surrounding neighborhoods and roads. In winter, the tunnel shrinks, as the trees buckle under the weight of the snow, further concealing the area.
As I grew into myself more and discovered my craving for alone time in nature, the frequency of these trail visits increased dramatically. When I entered the tumultuous and chaotic world of middle school and high school, I was taking weekly bike rides, walks with my dog, or long, exhausting runs through the park.
It was the perfect place to escape school stress, disagreements between friends and family, or a foggy, conflicted mind. Many times I’ve set out on my bike, hands shaking and head spinning, trying to escape from the type of fights that left friendships hanging by a single thread. I learned that not only could I break loose from my problems, but also assess them with a clearer, more organized thought process. The serenity and scenery became a drug that I always felt safe overdosing on. I started bringing a camera with me, trying to capture the beauty and peace that overwhelmed me. Yet pictures couldn’t come close.
One night in early February, I ventured out to the trails with a camera, my yellow lab Cooper, and a predicted snowfall of up to 10 inches. As we trekked through the gathering blizzard, the snow blocked out all noise. The only thing I could hear was the soft jingle of my dog’s collar off in the woods. The silence was so complete that I didn’t notice a deer less than two feet off the trail, just walking through the woods, paying no attention to me.
I have always come across animals on the trails—deer, foxes, bunnies and owls. I’ve even heard wolves. But this deer hadn’t run away from me like the others. She was walking alongside the path, exploring the thick snow just as I was. I initially raised my camera—after all, how often will I get this close to a deer in this type of scenery?
But the opportunist photographer in me was held back by her gaze—those huge, dark, frightened eyes. She was a friend, not a photo-op. I wasn’t going to interrupt her by setting off a click and flash.
We are all here for our own reasons.
As I leave for college in the fall, it will be a bittersweet goodbye to my tranquil shelter. I have developed a deep connection to these woods. They have seen me at my best and worst. They have watched me grow into who I am today—from the lost, adventurous girl riding purple training wheels to the confident, strong, still adventurous person I’ve become.
Sure, I’m afraid of feeling lost without my safe spot, my quiet reprieve from daily life. I’m also considering a scenario in which I won’t feel lost at all, but reaching a point where I no longer need that haven to calm down.
Beginning college is opening a new chapter in my life, and that can be scary, overwhelming and unfamiliar. But I know that, just like leaving my family and my home, I can always come back once in awhile.
Madie Ley will be studying journalism and communications at the University of St. Thomas in fall.