The lovely midafternoon call of an olive-sided fly-catcher serenades my passage through these shadows, as they have for all the years, all the summers that I have been passing through these forests. It’s calling, I know, from some more light-filled place—a break in the canopy, a stream’s edge, a small meadow. The bird’s call keeps me company as I move slowly forward, crawling over giant fallen logs, slipping between spiky branches, inserting myself ever deeper into the heart of the basin. I’m bushwhacking through my home, northwest Montana, less than a mile from Canada. Not a single species has gone extinct in this wild little valley since the retreat of the last Ice Age. This matters hugely to me. I understand the importance of accepting impermanence, but just because I understand it doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. If impermanence matters—if it’s the underpinning of all—then does not permanence matter as well? For each has a relationship with the other.

Here and there, in this dense wet forest, I spy the occasional nicks and stabs of man: clipped saplings, machete- or perhaps chainsaw-swiped 20 or 30 years ago, the vague beginnings of some semblance of a path—though such “trails” always peter out after only a few yards. It is as if the saw-wielding traveler became lost, or exhausted, or otherwise overwhelmed by the voracious embrace of such vegetative presence, and simply quit and turned the saw off and lay down somewhere and listened to the silence fold back in over the brief and clamorous and ultimately useless outburst of the saw. I look about at the dead ends of some of these little slash-patterned slips, half expecting to see the moss-shrouded skeleton of such an ancient quitter.

If there are any, they are already soil: soil, and arnica, and violets. My guess is that these paths to nowhere were faint attempts by the failed drug-runners of the 70s and early 80s, who looked at this spot on the map, thought it could be done, and headed in, much to their eventual regret, and, once they made it out, never returned. The scars of their own schemes and desires are less than whispers, less than evidence now. I may be the only one who has been into this forest since then. How much of the world is built on the backs of ghosts, and does this not make all the more amazing the integrity of the crafted, fitted survivors, the elegant, wilder ones who live here—not effortlessly, by any stretch of the imagination, but with meaning and purpose always?

I’m lost. I always get lost on a good hike. The canopy closes in; I become too attentive for too long to the ground beneath my feet—each next step.

I can’t be too lost; I know there’s a road behind me, and somewhere ahead of me, Canada with its cool promise of escape. And between me and Canada, there is the curious and not very inviting, not very welcoming stripe cut through the forest, 30 feet wide and straight as a laser: a physical attempt to impose psychological order on two nations.

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