by Elise Hempel
As a traveling companion, my dog, Groucho, is both good and bad. He's quiet. He mostly just sleeps, sprawled on the torn wool blanket on my Pontiac Vibe's back seat, occasionally sitting up and looking around at the passing cornfields, signs and trucks. He gobbles down his whole McDonald's sausage biscuit when we start out, and he puts up with my steady baby-talked commentary (Gritch – Look at the sweet cows! Oh, Gritch, here comes that bridge!). Best of all, he never throws up.
But he's tentative and skittish. And stubborn. Last month, on another trip to my sister's house in Minnesota, he repeated his traditional refusal to get out of the car at the first rest area. I put on his collar, hooked his leash, and tugged and tugged. But nothing. So I made a quick trip to the bathroom, and we drove on. The second rest area was more successful. This time, as I tugged, he slid himself out, cautiously sniffed the grass, and finally let me take him on a five-minute walk.
After that, I had no need to stop again: I didn't need gas, caffeine or bathroom, and I wasn't hungry. But I figured the now-confident Groucho could use an extra stretch, and suddenly there was the sign for another rest area, with the intriguing added words “Scenic Overlook.” This time, as I'd hoped, Groucho got right out, happily exploring the parking lot and the weedy pet-walking area behind it. So where was this so-called scenic overlook? We kept walking, getting further from the car, arriving at the very back of the rest area, at an inconspicuous educational sign describing that part of Wisconsin's natural resources. And next to it was an even more inconspicuous entranceway. Groucho and I entered….
And then – this lovely little trail climbing and winding through the woods, which seemed to appear out of nowhere. Groucho started bounding forward, and I practically skipped, wondering what lay around each magical shady turn. But I hadn't locked the car, and my purse was still inside it, and I only had on my bottom-worn Adidas flip-flops for walking shoes. I'll catch it on the way home, I said to myself, about to turn back. But then, I wasn't in any hurry to get to my sister's, and who'd want my 12-year-old car anyway, or my one lowly credit card aleady at its limit? We kept going, winding and climbing in our own little secret, no one else around, and we reached a beautiful wooden walkway, and a bridge. The only sign of the world we'd left behind us was a single gray flash through the trees of a semi rushing down the highway far below. And then the trail stopped and we were there, looking out over the rail at a layered expanse of trees, as though from a mountaintop. A wonderful wide vista that took my breath away, possibly even as much as that view of the Grand Canyon did so many years ago. Wow, I said to Groucho. Wow. And there was a bench and table, just waiting for my imagination, for a second visit and a future meal.
How was it that I had traveled that highway so many times over the years and had never stopped at this one particular rest area? Or had I stopped there and simply not noticed, the wants and needs of my then-young daughter, and the pressure of making good time, always leading my attention away from the trail? But time called once more, and, reluctantly, Groucho and I wound our way back down, back down to the parking lot and our car, back down to the real world. As we exited the trail I almost ran to the two families coming out of the rest area's facilities – two families heading directly into their cars, ready to hit the highway again, to make good time. I almost shouted, Come see! You won't believe it! Come take the secret trail!
All through my stay at my sister's I kept reminding myself: Don't forget. I planned to stop there again on my way back to Illinois – this time wearing my hiking shoes, bringing breakfast for G. and me, locking the car. And finally, heading home, heading toward it again, almost there, if I drifted off a little, ruminating as usual about bills I had to pay or some other worry, I told myself out loud, Don't miss it! But the town it was near merely came and went, and there was no sign – no sign whatsoever of the magical rest area I swear Groucho and I had found. An island of woods split the highway in two, and, like any legend or myth, like Oz or Brigadoon, the scenic overlook was gone.