One gray summer day, in a part of Connecticut I’d never been to before, I took my mom hiking up a mountain.
We drove up to Mt. Tom State Park, saw a sign pointing to a trail, and started walking. It was a cool morning and we explored the woods, happy to be alone together. I gave myself permission to feel and act like a three-year-old, happily going anywhere at all as long as Mama was holding my hand. I may have even skipped a little.
But soon our steps slowed, became more hesitant. The path felt less beaten, and before us was a mass of tall grass that looked like nothing had touched it but mist and brief bursts of sunlight. We looked at each other, not knowing which way to go. Finally, we turned around and found our way back to the car, certain we had gone the wrong way.
As we drove to the welcome center, we saw a young man, clean cut and walking with a purpose. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing and where he was going.
“Excuse me, sir. Can you please tell us where the hiking trails are?”
“Just follow the yellow blaze.”
“I’m sorry, could you say that again, please? Follow the yellow what?”
“The yellow blaze. Just look for the yellow blaze.”
“Oh. Okay. And where do we find this yellow place?” (Obviously, I had no idea what he was talking about.)
“Oh, they’re everywhere. Once you start looking for them, you can’t miss them.”
As we started heading back to the path, I noticed a small sign that said exactly what the young man had told us. “Trails marked by yellow blaze.” So that’s what he meant, I thought to myself. Not that it made any more sense to us. What in the world is a yellow blaze?
Then we saw it: bright yellow paint on a tree trunk. We walked up to it, wondering how we could have missed it before. Then we walked a little further, and saw it again. And again. And again. On trees. Rocks. Half-downed poles. Remnants of an old bridge. Now we walked even faster, no longer uneasy about getting lost or not being able to find our way back.
Here! This is the way to the top of the mountain! We were sure of it now.
Every so often we’d come to a fork with no yellow blaze, and one of us would stay put while the other walked along one path, looking for the next yellow blaze, turning back if none could be found so we could take the other path instead.
And so I learned that hiking is more than simply putting one foot in front of the other over questionable terrain, occasionally swatting mysterious insects from your skin, testing the ground you walk on with a stick as you make your way toward an unknown and unseen summit. It can feel like a lonely and scary-at-times adventure, and unless you know where or how to look, it’s easy to miss all the signs of help along the way.
As we neared the top of the mountain, I was struck by the unintentional meaningfulness of exploring this unknown area with my mom, keeping an eye out for the yellow blaze. I couldn’t help thinking that we all need a yellow blaze in our life, someone or something to signal when we’re going the right way, when we’ve wandered off too far, when it’s time to head back and start over. For some, it may be their faith, their moral compass. An abstract ideal. Their image of a future self.
But for me, on that gray summer morning in Connecticut, I was grateful for the realization that I was hiking with my yellow blaze. And wherever I may be in life, all I really need to do is look around for signs of her. On trees. Rocks. In listless dreams and stubborn hopes. In values so tightly tied around who I am, they almost smell and sound like me. In wistful memories and promised tomorrows. And sometimes, even in regret. Just follow the yellow blaze. As long as I can find where I am in relation to her, I know I’ll never be lost, I’m never alone, and no matter where I’m headed, I know I’ll eventually get there.