Friday, October 24, 2008

Lost in the woods

While I was off last Friday, I sent an evil text message to J., telling him that he wouldn't like what I had in mind for Saturday. His return voicemail was full of trepidation. "Er, what exactly do you have in mind?"

I had in mind something he'd mentioned the previous week—a trip to the Morton Arboretum. Thinking that it might be the last relatively warm day while there were still leaves on the trees,I wanted one more walk in the woods before holing up with tea and comfort food for the winter.

J. picked me up at the Homewood train station at around 3:35 p.m., and away we went, initially missing a well-hidden tollway entrance (one way to cut down on gas consumption and carbon emissions is to make the entrances hard to find, with key maneuvers—"turn right at 171st Street—left off Google maps).

Aside from frequent toll stops with varying amounts required—this keeps the cash-paying citizenry alert on the road—it's not a bad drive compared to our travels on some of the crazier expressways. Traffic was light, and I don't recall anyone cutting us off by a few feet, as happened later on the expressway. Except for the fear of getting stuck in the I-PASS lane or missing an exit, it was a less harrowing drive than usual. With me as the Navigator Who Must Be Obeyed, we followed a straightforward route. I even managed to say "no" to the oasis temptation, with its bathroom and massage chair.

We arrived after 4:00 p.m., which meant I had to watch and cut into J.'s time in the gift shop. He managed to spend nearly $100 before I could wrest him away.

Outdoors, I headed in a different direction in the hopes of skirting the conifers and finding fall foliage. Eventually, we circled two or three of the loops. While we spotted some colorful individuals in reds and yellows, we didn't find any notable stands. My timing may have been off. I thought that, in general, the trees here would be bare by November, but now I realize that that may be the time they're reaching peak color.

It occurs to me now that a carefully designed and planted arboretum is unlikely to burst with color in the same way as New York or Pennsylvania woods do. I remember when my dad would suddenly—or so it seemed—decide that today would be perfect for an autumn drive in the country. We'd pass acre after acre of brilliantly hued woods glowing in the sunlight, interspersed with small farms and small towns. Unlike the formally grouped arboretum, these woods had grown up on their own on unused land, with many species randomly intermingled. The result was a visual cacophony of color, with red next to yellow next to green next to orange next to brown, with bare branches between. Its very beauty lay in its uncontrolled wildness.

Back at the arboretum, J. stopped at several points to photograph interestingly gnarled trees (and me, because I was in the unusual mood of wanting to appear in the photos, which probably ruined the effect he was seeking). As I would think, "Perhaps it's time to turn back," we'd come upon another branch in the trail and signs pointing us to more potentially autumnal deciduous trees. The sun was perilously low in the sky when we came upon a parking lot—surely a sign that now would be a good time to retrace the steps we had taken over the past 45 minutes or more.

We followed a road for a while until we came to a point where a decision had to be made. I asked to see the map as I thought the group of young people coming toward us (and heading away) were consulting their own map and did not look especially helpful.

I was wrong. J. (who pointed out later that a mature man like him isn't afraid to see assistance) asked if they knew the way. They did. They told us to follow the road until path branched off into the trees, then to take it. We did, stopping to take photos of a particularly flaming tree in the semidarkness (unsuccessfully).

Although we seemed to be headed in the right direction, I sensed that J. was getting a little nervous. I wasn't sure how far we had left to go or that we were going precisely the correct way, but I was less concerned about being lost in the woods after dark than about the parking lot being locked if we were really late.

At a point when I was behind J., I made snuffly noises and said in imitation, "Diane, is that you breathing so funnily? Wait—why is your face covered with fur? And your arms?"

We reached a point that, in the dusk light, looked somewhat familiar, and I had picked up the pace as I noticed a downhill slant.

"Do you notice anything?" I asked.


"We're going downhill."

"I didn't notice."

"Can't you see and feel the path sloping downward?"

"Maybe a little."

"Remember, we trudged uphill at first, so it follows that we'd go downhill on the way back."

An unconvinced (or tired) "Mmm."

"Hey, I'm trying to teach you some wood craft here!" I said.

He seemed unappreciative, and it occurred to me that, depending on the layout of the hill and paths, it may be possible to descend in the wrong direction.

We were in more familiar territory when we spotted an outbound couple holding the hands of an adorable little girl between them. The sight of people taking a small child into the woods (or at least among the trees) after sunset inspired horrible thoughts, which of course I had to share.

"It's okay, sweetheart, Mommy and Daddy are just taking you for a little evening stroll. Why don't you get comfy under that nice tree? We'll be right over here. Somewhere."

Now don't get upset—my mind thinks less of contemporary and real horror stories than of fairy tales. In my story, the girl, left without a coat under the "nice tree," would have been unwitting agent of revenge on the doomed couple, who would not be her real parents but some kind of evil spirits.

It is Halloween time, after all.

We were reminded of this when we walked past several scarecrows created by Girl Scout troops from local schools. J. and I disagreed about which were the most original and creative. He liked the ones with a pop culture theme, while I preferred those based on twists of nature and imagination. I wish I could remember the half-seen images in the dark.

At last, J. perked up when we saw the lights—from the buildings and parking lot. It was about 6:35 p.m., the light was fading even in the open, and my bladder, with its infallible radar, was twitching with the sensations that bathroom proximity causes. Ah.

Next, we headed to Oak Brook without knowing which exit to take (foolishly, I thought it might be labeled Oak Brook). I hadn't seen it when J. thought we should have come upon it, so he asked at the toll both. It was the next exit, helpfully called Midwest Ave. or something like that. J. had only a vague idea of where Oakbrook Center is, so after a brief foray in a wrong direction (payback for the march through the woods?), he stopped at a gas station to ask. We had gone straight instead of turning right off the exit to the third light—a wrong move that was easily remedied.

Once we were there, it became apparent—at least to me—that we'd never find Moonstruck Chocolate Café by walking around, especially in our walked-out condition, so I had him drop me off by a directory. Eureka. It was at this end of the mall, not far off. We parked and, with a bit of walking and guessing, found it within spitting distance of a Godiva, of all places.

This Moonstruck is nothing like its late, much-lamented counterpart downtown; it's smaller and more of a storefront, but we ordered hot beverages and a couple of treats (J. selected a Republican elephant truffle), after which J. bought me truffles of my choice (I think he eats vicariously through me now).

Having drunk and eaten dessert, we went in search of food. Maggiano's Little Italy was packed, so we ended up at an available table in the bar at Mon Ami Gabi, where he ordered salad, steak Dijon, and blood orange sorbet, while I had French onion soup and steak béarnaise. Mmm. It seemed to take a long time, and we left after 10 o'clock. J. dropped me off around 11:00 p.m.

Then he went downtown. To work.

I guess the walk didn't tire him out, after all.

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