I just got a new car — a Subaru Forester. I like it a lot. Previously, I had two Priuses, which were also great cars. Before that, I had a sporty little Audi A4 station wagon that I truly loved. But in the spring of 2006, I ruined that car because I didn’t have the good sense to turn-around.
By way of background for this sad tale, I had been asked to participate in a breeding bird survey by New Jersey Audubon in the Pine Barrens. It was scientific study, and the participants were given 20 specific but randomly generated locations from which to count species. The locations were sent to us in the mail as GPS coordinates, marked roughly on topographical maps. We were instructed to scout our points prior to the count. I found a couple of the spots with my father in late April, but still had at least half the points to find by the beginning of May. After birding in Batsto one morning with others participating in the survey, I decided to try and find two more spots. I turned off Rt. 542, a well traveled, well-maintained PAVED highway that runs through the pine barrens, on to an unpaved road, that appeared to be like-wise, well-traveled called Ridge Road. Two miles further along, I found the first spot with no trouble. The next spot appeared to be another two miles up the road, so I kept going. Without my noticing, the road grew narrower, not really wide enough for two cars to pass side by side. I did notice however that it was getting a bit more rutted, and not quite so well-traveled, but my station wagon had all-wheel drive, which in my mind was the same as driving an ATV.
The first sign that something might be a amiss was a large puddle in the middle of the path. I say “path” because in truth, it was no longer a proper road, even though it appeared as such on the map. I couldn’t tell exactly how deep the puddle was, but it was long – maybe thirty feet. I stopped, hesitating at the edge of the puddle, when I noticed the path took a detour off to the left, around the puddle. I was three miles into this scouting trip by now, and I wasn’t about to turn around. The next point was at least ten miles by the next shortest route, and after all, I was driving an almost ATV! So I took the detour around the puddle – it was far worse than I had imagined, ruts, and roots and mud, and I clunked and bumped my way along until I came out to the path again on the other side of the puddle. I was sweating and my knuckles were white on the wheel, but I’d made it intact with perhaps only a few minor scratches on the car. I paused to catch my breath, then proceeded along the path. Of course around the next bend there was an even larger puddle – really more like a small pond. Now I was in a quandary. I didn’t want to turn around – there wasn’t any room to do so, I took the next detour too, this time off to the right…and it was worse than the first. A branch made an awful screeching noise as it scratched the length of the car, which was a manual five speed, and it stalled when I got mired in the mud. Still, somehow I made it past that second enormous puddle and back on to the path.
I was cursing my own stupidity by now. But I had no choice, I had to go forward. This time, it was less than twenty five feet to the next bend and another lake in the middle of the path. The detour to the left didn’t look as well trod as the first two, but never the less, I continued on. Don’t ask me why – I can’t for the life of me remember what compelled me forward. The detour was barely wide enough for my car to pass between tree trunks. I inched along and suddenly there was a big hole, and my front driver’s side tire got stuck. The engine stalled. I started the car and tried to go forward and it stalled again. So I backed up, and I could hear the underside of my car ripping away. I got out and surveyed the situation….Not only had the underside guard come off, but most of my bumper as well. I pulled it off the rest of the way, and threw the broken parts in the back. As I walked around the car, shocked at its current state of disrepair, I noticed that the left front tire was completely flat. In fact, it was barely on the rim. I leaned against the car, and looked around. I realized then for the first time that I was in the middle of a swamp. A dark and gloomy swamp.
I checked my cell phone; there was no signal. I was lost and completely alone, with a flat tire in the middle of a swamp, not even on a discernible path, and the way ahead was worse than where I had come from with no end in sight. THAT’S when I finally decided to turn around. And I did so, inch by inch, hitting trees in front of me and behind me and next to me. Inch by inch on three tires and a rim, I turned the car around and got back to the path with the first two puddles still to go. I’ll spare you the details of my pathetic retreat. Suffice it to say that it is possible to change a tire in the middle of a swamp, even if you’ve never done it before and the jack keeps sinking in the sand. My bruised and battered car and I emerged back on to Rt. 542 just an hour and half after we’d set out on that fateful journey. The car limped along for another four months, but I finally put it out of its misery.
What puzzles me the most is that I kept moving so determinedly along that path. Hind sight is always twenty-twenty, and now it seems obvious that I shouldn’t have tried to go around even the first puddle in the path. But I did not heed the puddle in the path as a warning to turn around. No, instead I was operating under the other paradigm, the one that tells us to conquer our fears and don’t be deterred by obstacles in the way. As I’ve tried to reflect on this story, to allow it to take shape, I find there’s plenty of support for staying the course and keeping on the path, such as I did. There’s far less support for turning back and chickening out. But staying on the same path is not always the right thing to do. How do you know when it’s time to take a detour? Every now and then, the best way forward is to turn around and start over again.
For years, the opening of ABC's The Wide World of Sports illustrated "the agony of defeat" through the painful ending of an attempted ski jump. The skier appeared in good form as he headed down the slope, but then, for no apparent reason, he tumbled head-over-heels off the side of the jump and bounced off the supporting structure. What viewers didn't know was that he chose to fall. Why? As he explained later, the jump surface had become too fast, and midway down the ramp he realized that if he completed the jump, he would land on level ground, beyond the safe landing zone, which could have been fatal. As it was, the skier suffered no more than a headache from the tumble. He had changed direction, though the cost for doing so was very high. He chose a very public, highly visible embarrassment, and the loss of a competition rather than risk a potentially catastrophic situation further along the path. It takes humility and wisdom to make such choices in everyday life.
I’m taking account of the path I’m on — watching for great big puddles in the way. It was my own dogged determination that drove me forward that day — willing me to take the short cut, urging me to save time and effort. Instead, I should have taken the longer, safer route -- on dry ground. It’s never too late to change direction.