A man was walking when he came to the edge of a great forest. The plants were lush and green and the trees towered above his head. The forest itself stretched as far as the man could see in either direction and beyond the horizon. The man had heard legends of this place. It was said that there was no way around this forest; to see the land on the other side, one had to journey directly through.
The legend said this distant land was one of great wisdom and of peace, where there was no war and no pain. For those that made the journey to the other side, a great banquet would be prepared for them, marking their arrival. But no one who had seen this place had ever returned and the journey to this other land had been said to take a lifetime.
As he walked along the edge of the great forest, the man met dozens of other travelers. Each had heard their own variations of this legend. Many travelers were well equipped with materials and tools as they started their journey. They had brought machetes and axes for cutting new routes through the trees. Some had crudely-drawn maps created from the tales of explorers who had returned, failing to reach the distant land. Other travelers resembled himself. They had happened upon the great forest by chance. Some were curious. Some were apprehensive. All of the travelers seemed drawn towards the forest.
The man also noticed many trailheads leading into the forest. Some were well worn and many travelers chose to start their journey there. Others were overgrown and nearly impassable. Around him, the man could even hear the thud-thud of axes as the most adventurous travelers worked hard to create their own trails somewhere just out of sight in the forest.
He felt a longing – he felt drawn – to this far off land and decided to begin his journey, but the man realized he was under-equipped compared to his fellow travelers. So, he decided to begin by following one of the trails that appeared well-groomed and maintained. The man said a prayer and set off into the forest.
As he walked, he could hear the sounds of those who were walking nearby and could often see glints of other figures through the brush. Soon, he began to encounter those that walked along his own trail. Sometimes these meetings were marked by a simple greeting. At other times, the man would walk with these fellow travelers and they shared the stories they had heard about the distant land on the other side of the forest. They would share the knowledge about the trees and plants from which they could eat and those that were poisonous or dangerous from which they should not eat.
Many days into his journey, the man came upon a fork in the trail. The diverging paths had no markings and looked equally worn. Which was the correct path? What would happen if he chose the wrong path? Would he ever reach the other side or would he die here in this forest? It was impossible to know for certain. The man stood at this fork for what had seemed like hours until another traveler walked by. This traveler held a map and she forged ahead confidently, not saying a word but staying to the left of the fork. Wanting to ensure he did not get lost, the man began walking in the footsteps of this woman. As the trail continued to meander through the great forest and as new trails began to merge and diverge all around him, the man stayed close behind his new leader.
One day, the woman stopped in her tracks as they came across a wayward traveler headed in the other direction. He was clearly upset and mumbled things about having wasted his time and choosen the wrong trail. The wayward man took out his map and began furiously pointing at all of the mistakes and the discrepancies between his map and the woman’s map. The wayward traveler spoke of people on the distant edges of the forest and how they had found the true path to the land on the other side. He didn’t know if he still had time, but he had decided to leave the forest and travel towards the horizon until he found the people of the true path.
The woman continued to lead and the man continued to follow.
It was several months later when the travelers came to a small but beautiful clearing. Many people had gathered there and dozens of tents stood in the field where families had been staying. Some of the residents had been tasked with keeping the clearing free of new growth, others seemed to be growing food. This was a village where people were in need of nothing. The people were happy here and seemed content to live the rest of their days here in the forest, isolated from the outside world, but having never reached the land on the other side. Many of the travelers who had reached this clearing also chose to stay. Some even claimed that this was indeed the land on the other side of the forest.
Could this be true? Could this be the land that so many travelers had been searching for?
The woman, who had been so prepared for the journey was captivated by this place. Though seeming so intent at reaching the distant land, she pulled a tent from her backpack, setting it up near the others. She had become weary from the journey and needed to stay here, if only for a little while. The man, however, wasn’t convinced. He truly believed in an even greater land on the other side of the forest. Though the people were proud of this clearing and invited travelers to stay, the man realized that some of the residents bickered and fought. Some families had more than enough food while others had very little. The people of the clearing even seemed to mock those who chose to continue their journey. This did not seem to be the land the legend had foretold.
And, so, the man continued, deeper into the forest. The hardships of his journey thus far had transformed him into a seasoned traveler. He had acquired some tools and supplies from others and had learned the ways of the forest. He had learned that there were no maps of the deepest parts of the forest since so few travelers had made it this far. The sounds of nearby trails had long since vanished and the man often knew he was alone, though rarely did he feel lonely.
The journey had now become exponentially harder. The brush was thick and since so few travelers had journeyed this deep into the forest, the man’s progress was slowed as he chopped and slashed his way through vines and thickets. On many days, he felt overwhelmed with the work. Sometimes he wondered if perhaps he had chosen the wrong path. But, then there were those days when he felt alive in the uncertainty of his journey – days during which the work felt empowering and fulfilling. These days kept him motivated to continue. He would continue moving forward as long as he could, believing that there was something more.
Many years had passed when the man first heard it. Low and fleeting at first, among the sounds of birds chirping and the wind rustling the leaves, the man thought that he could distinguish the sounds of music and laughter. He paused, standing there holding both his machete and his breath and focusing all of his attention on these far off sounds. Either the years alone in the forest had brought him to the brink of psychosis or he was approaching a grand celebration. He felt a sense of renewal as he more vigorously slashed his way forward, running when he could towards the noise. The light around him began to brighten as the dense forest began to slowly give way to sparser trees. His eyes tried desperately to adjust to a light like they had not seen for years.
The man squinted as he passed the last row of trees, closing his eyes hard several times to encourage them to focus the light of what was growing around him. As the intensity subsided, he realized he was standing at the end of a vast meadow. The same gentle breeze that moved the tall grass around him brushed his face and refreshed his spirit. Beyond the gras were lakes of crystal clear water, orchards filled with all variety of fruit, and flowers in every color of the rainbow. The man saw many people in this place too. They walked together slowly through the fields. They sat against the trunks of the fruit trees. They swam in the lake.
Standing there as he let the beauty of this place envelope him, he became aware that he had been joined at the edge of this meadow by a woman. She had the most beautiful and genuine smile he had ever seen. She glowed as she welcomed him. She said that she knew he had journeyed for years for everyone in this place had journeyed for years. That night there was to be a celebration to welcome him and she pointed towards a simple wooden pavilion on a hill a few miles away.
His emotions overwhelmed the man. He had been journeying for such a long time. At the same time that he felt overjoyed that this place even existed, he felt sad for those that turned back in frustration. He longed that those who had become complacent in their own little clearings would keep pushing, further into the forest to this beautiful place. Despite a deep and all-encompassing exhaustion, he felt renewed about what it meant to be here.
That evening hundreds of people gathered at the hilltop pavilion. They ate and drank and the man met many people who told him of their own journeys through the great forest. Many came from distant lands of which the man had never heard. Some spoke strange languages. Each person’s path was unique in it’s course but similar in the reverberating hum and compelled them to continue.
One thing puzzled the man though. As he spoke with his fellow travelers, many spoke of approaching this land from the east as he had done. Many, though indicated coming to this place from other directions. Some from the North. Many from the west and the south. The man had always understood the great forest to stretch from north to south and past the horizon. Perhaps it was the wine talking. How was it that people could come here from all manner of directions?
As the sun began to set, the man saw the woman with the genuine smile. He walked towards her and thanked for her this wonderful celebration. He told her that he felt at home here with people who had understood his own journey. Curious about his question he asked her about those who had said they came from the north, the west, and the south.
Smiling her genuine smile, she invited him to come to the edge of the hill. She pointed to the spot a few miles away where the man had ended his journey and he recalled the flood of emotions that had overwhelmed him just hours before. Then the woman directed his attention to the tree line as they began to walk around the perimeter of the hilltop. From this vantage point, the man realized that the tree line, too, surrounded this vast land. As they walked the man noticed that people were emerging from the forest just as he had done. This was not some land, distant from his homeland. Instead, this land was at the center. A journey through the forest was not a legend for those of the man’s own homeland. All people in every land had an opportunity to come to this forest and to begin their own journeys.
As the sun sunk below the horizon, the man thought about all of the paths that he saw on his own journey and imagined how many there must be in this forest that had become larger than the legend had said. He thought about how all of those paths emerged here in this beautiful place.