Our leader apologized, as she gently broke the news.
Reviewing her map confirmed the error, and she felt responsible for all of the extra miles ahead before our hiking day would be done and we could relish our climb up Caribou Mountain, a 3,648-foot peak in the wilderness of western Maine.
The parking lot where we now stood sweaty, grimy and ready to relax, was not where we’d parked that morning. As the crisp, October afternoon waned, we realized we were 16 miles away from her car, our way home.
At the summit, we’d looked upon the first scarlet and rust speckling the lush green forest that covered mountain peaks from below us to the horizon. Then we’d descended to a junction, and taken the wrong trail down the mountain, ending up on the opposite side from the car.
We climbed back up about two-thirds to the top until we connected with the right trail. Exhausted, hungry and filthy, we finally reached the car in the deep dark that night.
I felt badly for my friend and colleague who led the trip. Eager to share her love of hiking a favorite Maine peak, she’d invited novices like me on the day-trip, and was now worried our wrong turn had ruined the day and soured us for hiking.
It did not. I still love the peace and rhythm of walking a wooded trail, mile after mile, and in the 20-plus years since then have walked thousands of miles over countless hikes. When she and I connect we share a laugh, remembering that crisp fall day when we hiked Caribou Mountain. Twice.
What I most remember is her kindness.
Two girlfriends and I drove north out of Boston toward Jackson, New Hampshire on a Tuesday in early May.
I’d graduated college just days before and we were celebrating with a road trip.
Jackson is a sweet, little gingerbread town in the White Mountains. On a vacation there with my mom, I’d noticed kids getting off their school bus and had a light-bulb moment: People lived in really beautiful places.
So could I.
Beautiful, to me, meant BIG nature: forests, mountains, streams. My childhood home was in a lovely post-war suburb on Cleveland’s east side, with streets that had been named for all the children in a single family. Most of the brick and aluminum-sided bungalows had front porches where people sat and could talk over the front lawn to their neighbors passing on the sidewalk. The maple trees were so big their branches made green arches high above the asphalt.
But I was eager to find my own place. So I l sought out a big city for college, then studied for a semester each in London and Washington, D.C. By graduation, I’d grown weary of pavement, noise and crime.
We drove north out of the city, stopped in Concord, New Hampshire for lunch, and ambled east through the mountains along the twisty-turny Kangamagus Highway.
Suddenly, a big blue roadside sign: Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be.
Then a little green one: Portland, 100 miles.
I pulled over to reverse direction, then look for the left turn I’d missed for Route 16 north to Jackson.
But my friends wanted to see Portland.
First, we passed pretty little ponds and woods and the beautiful, big Sebago Lake.
We pulled into Portland at twilight. We walked along a gritty waterfront area of docks with lines leading to important-looking boats, across a busy avenue from the brick sidewalks and cute shops of Portland’s Old Port district.
We ate ice cream cones at Ben & Jerry’s. We arrived back in Boston well after midnight, thrilled with our adventure.
Three months later, I started a job at a local, daily newspaper and set about making a life as a writer on the Maine coast. I stayed 13 years, and found a niche writing about commercial fishing and the marine environment.
That wrong turn turned out just fine.
I left Maine, certain I’d return five years later. I kept the house.
Call it “magical thinking” but looking back on that bittersweet time, it probably protected me from turning around, and giving in to anxiety that leaving was a mistake. Even, maybe, that the marriage was a mistake, too.
My fiancé had endured years of professional challenges and soul-searching, then was accepted and excited about a Ph.D. program at Penn State. Five years to become a professor, then he wanted to teach at a small college. It seemed like a good time for me to leap from a staff writer to freelance writer.
Five years in Pennsylvania. Then we’d be back. Of course we would be back.
I knew nothing about college football, or Joe Paterno, blue and white, lions, or anything Nittany, until we came to a town about 10 miles from the university in 2005 to house-hunt.
All I knew was what I had seen from I-80 driving with my mom between home in Cleveland and school in Boston: Trees and more trees. On one of those road trips, we spotted a sign for McDonald’s and exited the highway for a pit stop. We never found that McDonald’s, so never got off the interstate around there again.
My fiancé and I found a perfect 100-year-old house in a town just a few miles from that exit. The real estate ad said “cutie-patootie” and it delivered. The petite, folk Victorian had its original siding, painted a deep blue-grey with white trim and a sweet porch on the second floor. I loved the house, and the town was charming.
But the move was not my choice. Love is love. You do your very best.
So on my 35th birthday I worked a final day at a good, stable job, then flew to State College, Pennsylvania, with a sleeping bag in my carry-on. The next day I bought a second house, that cute folk Victorian. Ten days later, we were married at a beach ceremony on Maine’s Schoodic Peninsula.
Truth be told, at first I hated living in central Pennsylvania.
It was hot and humid. I wept for a breeze to deliver cool, salty fresh air off the ocean that never came. I tried to explore, and just felt stuck in loops of highways and cornfields that all looked the same and made no sense to me.
Eventually, I settled in and learned to love central Pennsylvania’s small towns, and the ridge-and-valley topography. Plenty of trails lead into the woods along brooks and trout streams.
There is no place quite like Maine. But there are many down-to-earth, hard-working folks, cute small towns and beautiful natural places in central Pennsylvania. In other words, much of what I loved about Maine I found here, too.
I made writing a full-time business. I made new friends. I made a garden.
We could not make the marriage work. It turned out to be a wrong turn, a mistake. He moved on. I stayed.
I wish correcting that wrong turn was as easy as climbing back up Caribou Mountain or staying on that road to Portland.
A failed marriage requires grieving, and for me, only time, tears and long walks through Spring Creek Canyon would be the way through it.
I hunkered down for a year of work and anything that felt good: Tearing up carpets and painting my studio walls a deep purple, gardening, long walks and talks with good friends, soaking in a hot bath, thinking of having children on my own.
Then, just shy of a year later — 51 weeks to be exact — I got exceptionally lucky and met a man who is the love of my life. Soon, I met his two sons, both good, solid young men. Three years later, we were married. No second thoughts. Not one.
These new relationships could have easily gone off the rails in so many ways. My strong sense of “love at first sight” could have been just more magical thinking. Another mistake. The boys could have resented and hated a rival demand on their dad’s attention. We were careful to show them day-to-day that they came first.
It was a time of huge life changes. My own dad was soon diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died six months later. The stress could have broken me. Yet, my gut was clear. I trusted this new love and leaned into it.
It turned out to be the real deal. Together, we made a new family.
If not for that leap into the mistake marriage, I would not be here. I would not have found and blended into our family. I would not have been close to my childhood home and dad when he faced illness, cancer treatments and his final days.
So I am grateful for the wrong turns, even the ones that turned out to be really big mistakes, because they led right to where I belong.