As I wandered, tired, down the weathered path, I saw a sign in the distance. It had been weeks since I had seen any evidence of human life in the vast emptiness of land. I gathered up the remaining strength in my aching body, and walked as quickly as my screaming muscles would allow to the wooden sign. As I got closer, I could see the message emblazoned on it which read, in white letters, "Please stay on improved trails."
I snorted in disgust. This is what I had waited weeks for? The first sign of humanity, and all it was telling me was to stay on the established path. Fat lot of good that had done me in the weeks past.
I disregarded the sign and continued walking into the wild nature ahead of me. Dusty and brown as the land was, I could see green in the distance. I hoped beyond hope that it was more than an illusion, a mirage of my tired eyes after weeks of wandering.
As it got closer, my tired brain registered with a shock of unexpected joy that that the greenery was real, and it was vast. I picked up my pace and soon it was surrounding me, the brown emptiness seemingly left behind. And, as I drew further in, I realized I was being warned again: "Dead end road. No turn around beyond this point."
No need to warn me, sign, I'm not turning around.
The sign had been defaced, with a hole turn into it's sheet metal build. A bullet hole? Who else had been down this path? Were they, like myself, tired, empty wanderers, or was the bullet hole a warning?
"See this? That's what's coming for you if you continue down this path."
No, I decided. That was unlikely. My tired brain was once again playing tricks on me. For all I know, this greenery is still an elaborate mirage, and I'll blink my eyes and still be in the hot desert.
I continued on. Several hours later, the heat of the day began to wane and the sun began to set. Desperately, I hoped the cool darkness of night was not far off. I squinted. Up ahead, my tired eyes were surprised to see a chain link fence span the openness ahead. Surely, it had been left over from those who inhabited this emptiness in days long gone. I approached a segment of the fence and saw where it separated from its post. A hole, large enough to fir a small human through. I couldn't be the only one here. But, who else? And why? Did someone else have the idea before me, and take off before the world turned for the worse? Had they made this trek months hence? Years? No one would think to look this far, and only the desperate would venture.
I looked in either direction, but the fence spanned as far as I could see, and my tired legs would not allow me to climb up its fifteen-foot height. I reached out to the opening and wrenched it open as far as I could manage. My starved frame was not hard to force through the slight opening. The metal sticking out left thin scratches on my arms and tears in my clothes, but I made it.
Once through, I looked around and saw...no one. If the people who ripped into the fence before me were near, they were keeping their distance. The sun was going down, and it was time for me to sleep. I made an uncomfortable bed in a patch of brush thick enough to keep me hidden, and fell asleep.
I must have been tired, the day had been long, and I slept unexpectedly well in the brush. I awoke with the sun and when I rose, I looked around. The woods I had discovered the evening before were indeed real, and continued around me and further in. As I wandered, the potential to run into others like me remained at the forefront of my mind. What would I say to them, if they gave me a chance to speak? "No, I'm not a threat. I ran away, just like you. Please, help me." Would they buy it?
The woods broke ahead, and I saw a clearing into which the sun streamed. In the center of the clearing, small stones gleamed like jewels, set in a circle. That settles it, I'm not alone. But what could this be?
I saw that the colorful stones were encircling a plant with a tree-like stump that grew strong from the ground around it. It was covered in a bright green moss. It was beautiful and oddly hopeful. It was the brightest, happiest sight I had witnessed in a long time-- color, growth, joy....and the thought of not being alone in the wilderness. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes.
I took a bright teal stone from the circle and closed up the circle to hide the empty space. I hoped whoever made it wouldn't mind, but I needed a memory of this moment. I needed to remember that beauty would still be found, even now.
I moved past the clearing and through the next mile or so of trees until I saw another clearing up ahead. This one looked like it was opening again to dry, dusty earth, but it wasn't as hopeless as the places I had been through before. There were patches of green in the dirt and, up ahead, there were mountains! As the trees opened up and I saw the full extent of the sight ahead, I stopped. The tears that has sprung to my eyes earlier were seeping out, running tracks down my face. The sky! It was a combination of blues, punctuated by racing, white clouds. It seemed vast, endless in it's beauty. In an odd sort of way, it gave me something to hope for. This journey had been hard, thankless, endless, but as long as beauty such as this still remained, there was something to live for. There would be others, there would be a future, and I wouldn't stop until that hope was satisfied.
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