The Colors of Autumn

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Wielkopolska National Park, Poland – October 2007

Train to Mosina, and then the blue trail all the way to Stęszew. Thirteen kilometers. I scrawled this on a note to my roommate and told my Polish friends. You shouldn’t hike alone out there, they warned me. I reminded them that my husband hadn’t yet arrived and that none of them wanted to accompany me. I need some air, a walk in the forest. It’s Saturday. There will be others on the trail. I’ll be fine.

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Gold is the color of autumn in Poland. Diffuse sunlight filters down through the trees. Every possible hue of brown lies under my feet. What has already fallen is just as beautiful as what hangs on. Small lakes appear behind the trees. Families stroll the path before and behind me, until the trail splits. They take the shorter, more popular yellow trail. Their voices fade and disappear.

The woods close in around me. The path widens to a two track. The sound of a radio, wheels turning on earth. I step aside and raise my hand in greeting. Beer stench wafts out of the passing window. I keep my eyes on the ground. My stomach constricts. I duck behind a tree. The car moves forward about a hundred meters, then the tail lights surge bright red. Slow reaction time is a good sign, but there are two of them. The car idles. I move further off the trail and crouch behind some brush. And then, miraculously, family voices. The car moves along. I emerge from the forest. The family has paused at the turnoff to the village of Łódź. They don’t acknowledge me as I pass. Continuing along the road would bring me out of the forest, but it’s also the way the car went. The blue markings on the trees veer left. And I follow.

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Thick gray clouds hang low over the village. Neither sound nor motion emanates from the homes or gardens. Do eyes peer at me from behind those curtains? The famous 17th century wooden church appears at the junction of the road to elsewhere. The doors are firmly shut. I cast no looks over my shoulder as I make my way back to the trail.

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I emerge from the forest into sunshine. The last of the trail passes by a narrow lake. Ponies graze in the pasture beside it. I look behind me once, to the dark forest. No, I won’t wander into the deep woods alone again.

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The train station in Stęszew is the usual grim cinder block construction found in most Polish small towns. Dubious puddles in the corners. Angry tags scrawled on dingy walls. Behind grimy glass, the obligatory troll hunches over a tattered tabloid magazine, conveniently oblivious to the beer-swilling, tracksuit-sporting hooligans who have congregated at the entrance. And to my presence before her.

“Przepraszam.” I slide some bills under the window. “Do Poznania, proszę.”

The sigh of a thousand lost battles. The tabloid is laid aside. Ticket and change is shoved under the window.

I turn away and walk out to the platform. Tendrils of cold begin to seep into my bones. I stare at the clock. The train is already late, but this is normal for Poland. What if there was no way out of this place?

In my mind, wisps of a scene coalesce:

She can hear it in the distance. A soft, percussive churning. The hooligans and the old women have left, taking their jeers and taunts with them. The clock continues to tick, but does not change. 3:52 PM. She stares down the tracks, which stretch into oblivion. An unfamiliar hue appears on the horizon. It reminds her of alienation. She takes a step back. Maybe there is no better place. 

A shrill whistle pierces the air. Steam clouds over the forest; a flash of steel. The 3:52 rounds the bend.

She steps onto the tracks and spreads her arms in welcome.

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The shrill whistle of a vintage train snaps me out of the morbid haze. The acrid smell of coal fills my throat. The engine’s chug is a jubilant sound. I cross the tracks, step inside, and take a seat. What an unexpected delight to carry me home.