The Road Miss Took
(or Riding with the Wolf)
YOU ARE LOST in the woods. This bodes ill for you, especially at the start of a fairy tale. At least the weather is fine, there is still light, and you are on a dirt road.
All roads lead somewhere and, if the saying is literal, ultimately to Rome, a destination you would now welcome despite your aversion to big cities. The prospect of a late afternoon espresso and biscotti puts a spring to your step. This road, however, unkindly soon leads you to a fork. Whereas before you merely had to stay the course, now you must also chart a new one.
You peer down the diverging paths. Should you take the one less—or more—traveled? And which is which? The weight of choosing hangs heavy. As you deliberate, several yellow and crimson leaves twirl before you in the breeze and settle upon the path to the left.
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You go right. By virtue of stepping, you have turned this path into the more trodden one. Logic tells you that the more trodden path will bring you to safety. But you have clearly not read much poetry. You have also failed to read the tree leaves. This path will, at best, take you down a long uneventful life that will end in a sharp pang of regret. You can do better. You must do better. Carpe diem. Rage, rage against the established life.
Fortunately, a guide stands on hand, a personal assistant in this wilderness, a private Virgil to guide you through this dark night of your soul. Here I am. Now try again. Embrace the adventure. Live a little.
You turn back and take the path less trodden. Hell yes. Game on
Around the next bend, you encounter a crooked wooden sign. Painted in sloppy handwriting, it reads, PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!
You pause. What ails you? Troubled by a loud truism? Opiate afterworlds aside, each life consists of an unending procession between two chasms of inertia. And any procession, naturally, involves risk. So being alive, by the rules of transitive logic, carries risk. Got it? Marvelous, now chin up. Onwards!
The path narrows as you advance, the grass yellowing, the trees closing in. The branches are now gnarlier, almost clawing at you. The colorful songbirds serenading you earlier have given way to somber crows and owls that appraise you sternly from their knobby perches.
You stumble over a tree root in the darkening wood, causing a heavy presence in the adjacent bushes to shuffle about with frenzied grunts. Calm yourself, unseen creatures in thickets always sound more threatening when you’re lost in the woods.
A signpost ahead cheers you. Unlike before, the words are expertly etched. This professionalism comforts you. The sign reads TRAILBLAZERS* THIS WAY . An odd message, though not an unsettling one.
Then you notice the small print at the bottom of the sign. You stoop to read it:
*This sign is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as a specific inducement to take a particular path. Always do your own research. Any risks taken, existential or otherwise, are solely the responsibility of the hiker.
You pause, troubled by this disclaimer. Are you really oppressed by this bureaucratic fart of legalese? Come now, this is just the busywork of penpushers, the detritus of lawyers hogging at the trough. Ignore the noise and follow your bliss. It’s not as if you didn’t know that responsibility for the consequences of any opinions herein expressed—including mine, for the record—fall squarely upon your shoulders, which I regret to say are now slumping rather unheroically.
No slouching, young adventurer! Eyes on the stars even if your feet are in the gutter. You pause, chewing over my words. Chew away, that’s what I’m here for—to inspire you with plagiarized metaphors, if you ever make it out of here, that is.
You are unable to take a joke, it seems, for you spin around in a huff and retrace your steps toward the fork in the road. Unwise. The close of day nears and you cannot afford to backtrack. Alas, you stubbornly reject the counsel of your venerable guide.
Around the next corner, you come face to face with an adult gray wolf. Don’t say I didn’t warn you—this one’s on you. Your instinct is to turn and sprint, but we know this would trigger the wolf’s prey drive and end badly for you. Maintain eye contact and project strength. Very good. You’re not even trembling, which is impressive, although I do detect a quickening of breath.
The wolf sidles over, eyeing you. The closer it gets, the larger it appears to grow. By the time it stands before you, still regarding you with its amber eyes, it seems the size of a horse.
You have opted against aggressive tactics like making yourself large or clapping or hurling rocks as advised by wildlife experts in such encounters. This suggests you are either paralyzed with fear or perhaps intrepidly reading the situation. Indeed, with its relaxed brow and drooped tail and smoothed fur, this wolf looks friendly.
The wolf lowers its head and you gently stroke its forehead. Look at you, you little Mowgli. It seems you’ve made a new friend
The wolf lowers its front legs, folding them gracefully beneath its body, and then drops its haunches, its tail softly sweeping across the trail. It looks up at you and almost nods its snout as if to say, Go on then, hop on.
You don’t hesitate. Grasping its mane, you slip a leg over its back. Burying your face into its unexpectedly soft, almost woolly, fur, you press yourself against the wolf as it gingerly rises, adjusting its posture to better accommodate you. Then it sets off down the path.
At first the wolf moves slowly, sensitive to your inexperience in riding wolfback. But as you accustom, your steed picks up speed. Tongue lolling, the wolf bounds onward, leaping over streams, clearing fallen logs, scampering boulder to boulder.
A few stars begin to populate the darkening sky, but the ascending full moon soon dominates the firmament. You cling on in exhilarated silence as you tear across the earth together in the milky light.
Only in your dreams, soaring like an albatross just above the ocean’s surface, have you experienced anything like this. And to think you might have still been trudging down the well-trodden path, swatting at mosquitoes! You shut your eyes in ecstasy, the wind in your face, letting out the occasional wild yelp of joy as your hair whips about behind you. You go, girl!
Your eyes snap open. My last comment has surprised you. It appears you thought you were a young man, not a young woman. Quite the presumption, especially considering the title of this tale. I may, of course, be wrong about your gender. But that hooded red cape billowing behind you gives every outward indication that—
Oh my god, I’ve just realized it, don’t you see what’s happening here? Jump off, jump off! At best you will be defiled by a wolf, at worst devoured! You fool, why did you come this way? Why didn’t you take the path more trodden if your goal was to get out of the woods? Instead, you foolishly chose the path less traveled; you chose the path upon which the dead leaves fell, ignoring the obvious omen! What in god’s name were you thinking? And what were you thinking wearing a red riding hood on a walk in the woods? And then to cozy up with a wolf? Don’t just sit there: run, Run, RUN!
Bewildered, terrified, you clutch handfuls of fur and skin and violently rein back on your steed. The wolf yelps out in pain and skids to a stop. As you leap off, the perplexed eyes of the wolf meet yours. But fear has overwhelmed you. You set off sprinting up the sloping trail, the screaming in your head drowning out the sorrowful whimpers behind you.
As you near an opening in the elevation, a howl pierces the night—a long, haunting wail that rings out across the wooded range. You redouble your efforts, gasping and slipping and scrabbling up the final leg of the escarpment before the trail opens into a plateau. Just as you step onto the ridge, something huge slams into your back and pierces your neck, sending you flying forward upon the granite ridge.
As you lie there, choking and gurgling on your blood before losing consciousness, you see the lights of Rome glittering in the valley below.
“Yet knowing how way leads on to way I doubted if I should ever come back I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost
In his 2015 Paris Review piece “The Most Misread Poem in America”, David Orr contends that Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is less a paean to the untraveled path than a caustic commentary on the ways we deceive and mythologize ourselves. The folksy image of Frost as a quintessential American Stoic offering quips of wisdom while gnawing on a straw is mostly marketing façade; really, he is a cunning and caustic assassin in sheep’s clothing. The poem unflatteringly reflects both our smug convictions that we have taken all the right turns in our life as well as our whiny “if only” self-deprecations over faulty past choices.
The critic Frank Lettrichia suggested that this poem was the best example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing in all American poetry. But to merely read “The Road Not Taken” as a satire of sentimental individualism and rationalization (never mind of the rah-rah inspirational type of valedictorian speechification where it’s constantly invoked) also risks misinterpretation. It can both be and not be these things—less a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Orr concludes, than “a wolf that is somehow also a sheep, or a sheep that is also a wolf.”
Today, October 4th, is the celebration of the Feast of Saint Francis of Assissi, the 12-century Italian mystic and friar. He renounced his inherited wealth to become an itinerant evangelist of poverty and charity; in 1209, he pilgrimaged to Rome to found the Franciscan order. Renowned for a compassion for all creatures, Assissi is the Catholic patron saint of animals. Processions and blessings of animals are held all over the world around this time in his honor
A famous legend about Assissi involves the Wolf of Gubbio. A wolf just outside the Umbrian city that had been feasting on livestock began hunting down humans. The wolf lay outside the city gates, devouring anyone (a la Grendel) who tried to kill him. One day, Assissi approached the wolf unarmed. Ignoring the clamorous voices from town that warned he would be mauled and eaten and that urged his retreat, Assissi chose a different path. He proposed to the starving wolf an arrangement in which the townsfolk would feed him if he ended the attacks. The truce held.
A German proverb says, Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is. Another German proverb says, Make yourself a sheep and the wolf will eat you.
Both can be true 🐺
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