Everybody meets him at least once in their lives. Unfortunately nobody recognizes that fact until much later in life. Sometimes, they recognize him right away, those are the lucky ones. Once in a while, he will make his presence known because you really need to think about your choices. That is when I met him.
He came to me in a dream. I found out later- that is his preferred method of contact. Although he can come as a daydream, fleeting thought, or a voice just stuck in your head that won’t go away, like those ear worm songs that you can’t stop singing when they pop in your head. Beforehand he appears to disguise himself as deciding; afterwards, well he disguises himself as regret.
Once in a while, if you truly listened to him, and decided with grit, well then there was no regret. In fact he fades from both your memory and your mind. You have no second guesses, wishes for do-overs, or "if only” thoughts. Believe me, the number of people who have that outcome, or who have never met him, well, you could probably count them on one hand, and have fingers left over to ponder.
So here is the first time I met him (and yes, I have met him many times since):
In my dream I was strolling over rolling grass covered hills. Not the steep scary cutting knife edge ridges of the Rocky’s or the Alps. Nor was it the giant dome shape forested hills of Appalachia. No these hills were the softer rolling kind you find in Scotland or parts of Ireland, or the beginning of the Appalachian trail.
Great day hiking hills, that is the kind of hill I was strolling. Wide ridges, soft dirt trails, plenty of flowers of all kinds, and those mountain grasses that grow waist high and make you look like you are wading through the beginning of a Romance Movie. Birds sang off in the distance, the sun was warm not hot, and for whatever reason bugs that bite, sting, or bother were banned from the scene.
I had a light back pack on filled with two bottles of water, a couple of Reese’s Cups, a Tuna Fish sandwich, one Pepsi, and some trail mix. I searched under some trees until I found a nice candidate for a walking stick. It was just thick enough to grip nicely, and about six inches shorter than I am tall. Perfect. All I had to do was use a nearby rock to smooth out the bark and a few rough spots, and she was ready to go. I had a wonderful walking stick, a full back pack of treats and water, a lovely hillside to explore and nobody within miles. Perfect.
For the whole first part of the dream I just wandered through the hills on that same dirt path I first found. It seems just enough people took that path to leave a trail, but not enough to make it look worn and rutty. A soft inviting trail, one that said you aren’t alone, but you won’t be bothered either. Just me, my walking stick, the sun, and birds chirping or singing - with me moseying along in a manner that defined the word: mosey.
Then just at the top of the hill, where the forest began and the scene changed from pastoral to the deep silence of Nature’s Cathedral; where trees tower above you, light sifts through in straight fuzzy shafts, and the brush and bramble disappear. That is where I first met him.
He was sitting on a tree stump whittling on a stick with an old Swiss Army Knife, the kind that every school kid of my generation either had, or lusted after. You could’t miss the bright red handle, the white cross, or the thickness of all the assorted tools crammed into that little pack of survival.
Next to him were several paths, all of them leading in different directions, like a river hitting a delta. Some went up hill in a straight line, others went up hill but meandered. Some went down hill quickly and a few seemed to wander next to each other until they disappeared in the shadows of the giant trees.
He sat smack in the middle of them all. From where he sat on his tree stump, every single trail (including the one I was on) was visible. He looked up as I came around the bend:
“Howdy. Take a seat.”
That is all he said, but matched it with a warm smile, a graceful pause in his whittling, and a gesture with his knife towards another nearby stump stool.
Well, I don’t know why, but it seemed the right thing to do. He wasn’t threatening or scary, or intimidating…just welcoming and neighborly. So I did what he said and sat on the other stump.
“Would you like half a tuna fish sandwich and a Reese’s Cup? I have both.”
His face lit up like I just told him he won the lottery.
“Why that sounds delicious. I haven’t had a Reese’s cup in forever.“
(I didn’t know then, that he meant that literally. He hadn’t had a Reese’s cup in forever.)
I pulled my pack off and started to pull out our lunch. He watched as he kept whittling. When he saw me pull out a couple of small Pepsi cans (I bring the 150ml cans with me on hikes, because water is a much better trail drink, but when I eat lunch I like my Pepsi), he slapped his knee with one hand:
“Oh. My. Gosh. A soda? Thank you. I had one of these a long time ago but it was Sarsaparilla not the modern soft drinks you kids have.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had only heard of Sarsaparilla in the tales of the Old West. I guess it was the forerunner of our Root Beer. But I had never tasted it, nor did I know anyone who had. And calling me “kid”? Heck, I was thirty three. He had such joy in his eyes as he held the Pepsi can up to marvel at, that I let his remark pass.
“You had Sarsaparilla before?”
His face took on that look that old people get when they search their memory for an odd bit of their past, find it, and then hook onto it.
“Oh yes, it was out in the territories back in the 1800’s. If you went in a Saloon in those days you only had three choices: Hard Cider, Liquor or Sarsaparilla. I chose Sarsaparilla…you know…because of my job.“
With a wave of his hand encompassing me, the setting, and him, to accent the word job, he went back to open his can of Pepsi.
He giggled like a little kid when the top popped with a little fizzing sound and a bit of bubbling foam came out, which he licked up like a kitten finding a bit of spilt milk, with that mixture of delight and hurry infused in the licking. I found it fun to watch him.
“So what is your job? I mean why didn’t you choose liquor or hard cider?”
(If he was delusional, thinking he had been alive in the 1820’s out West, I didn’t want to upset him: since it was only him and I... and he had a knife.)
He looked at me the way someone who knows something you don’t looks at you when you ask the right question. I sat up a bit straighter.
“Oh, I should introduce myself, then it will make sense to you. I guard the fork in the road of Life. When you have that duty, of being there when people choose to take a fork in the road, well you don’t want to be drunk, or hungover, or have the running squirts from Hard Cider. You need to have all your faculties and wits around you so you help them choose the right fork.
It is embarrassing to watch them wander back and go: “That was a dead end.” Or if they come back all sad, defeated, despondent and say: “That path took me the wrong way.” It is truly sad when they never come back. They took a fork in the road that left them without any chance to change back, or find their back trail to start over again. They…they…they just get lost.“
A single tear dropped from his eye to bounce off of the Pepsi can with a solid “drip doing”. He had that faraway look that old lovers get when they think about the girl or guy that got away. It was so obviously painful to him…I looked away, ashamed that I saw that private moment.
I heard him clear his throat, take a sip of Pepsi. His voice changed to one of wonder, surprise, even joy:
“My. My. My. This is the nectar of the Gods!”
“I think so too!”
So help me God, we clinked cans like we were toasting the end of World War II. It was spontaneous, unscripted, and unsettling. I felt like I had known him my whole life (it turns out he did know me my whole life, I just didn’t know him), reveling in our newfound agreement that Pepsi was the nectar of the Gods.
His voice grew a bit stronger, more serious, like honesty was buckling up every word.
“So which fork in the road are you going to take?”
He used the hand holding the Pepsi to point to the several branchings of trail leading away from the stumps. As his hand went by each path, the path would light up. I could see down the path a little way, but not a long way- and the paths all began inside me.
I didn’t know what to say, or do. I just stared. How did all these paths originate in me? How did he know to show them to me? How did he even know I was thinking about choosing one of them? For the first time since meeting him, I got scared.
“I don’t know. Which would you take?”
Have you ever heard an honest belly laugh? One without an ounce of malice in it. Bereft of anything but pure laughter brought on by something so funny to you that you can’t even breathe? Well that is how he laughed when I asked which path he would take.
It took him four or five minutes before he could do more than gasp for air. Tears streamed down his face, he pounded his empty hand on his thigh, and he would laugh again. Finally he wiped his eyes with one hand, straightened up, eyes lit up with the afterglow of a true belly laugh.
“Thanks Kid, I needed that. (still kind of wheezing from the laugh attack) I can’t choose a path for you, or for anyone. I guard them, I don’t pick them. You do!”
With that, he pointed the Pepsi can in his hand at me like it was some sort of magical wand.
“What? What do you mean?”
He pointed to my chest with the Pepsi Can wand - and I could see straight to my heart. All paths started there. They came out of my body, found a link to all the paths away from that moment, and splintered off into a dozen trails. All of them lit with possibility, but not the bright glow of having been chosen. Some looked kind of dark and dingy, others looked a bit “twinkly” like they were trying to lure me down them, or trick me into taking them.
One path though, looked ordinary. No sparkling lights, glittering footpath, or flowery petal covered trails. It just looked solid, real, lasting. I chose that one.
The Man stood up, came over and gave me a hug. Helped me put away the remains of my lunch. I offered him the spare can of Pepsi to keep.
He gave me another hug. His eyes twinkling with gratitude:
“I don’t know how to thank you. I don’t get many gifts. Most folks just come back down the trail and say: “I took the wrong fork.” No "thank-you", no “I should have looked harder before I chose,” not even as much as a “howdy do” and they were back on another wrong path.
You chose well, and gave me a Pepsi! For that I shall let you remember this when you wake up.”
And that was that. I woke up.
What a strange dream, I thought. For just a moment, I could see down that path I chose. She was standing at the beginning of it, waiting for me to join her. She was looking off to the side at something…one hand pointing, her other hand waiting for mine to hold before she wandered down the path.
I knew right then I was going to ask her to marry me at lunch. I rolled out of bed to get ready. Something jabbed my hip. I reached under the sheet to see what the heck it could be.
It was an old Swiss Army Knife.
I had made the right choice.
The fork in the road no longer under guard.
I heard the fizz of a freshly popped Pepsi can.
I put the knife on my dresser, next to the ring I would offer her at lunch.