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The Things You Don't Know You Don't Know

Before I moved to the UK, I lived mostly in Alaska then a brief time in Oregon. Alaska doesn't have a huge variety of tree species -- mostly birch and spruce -- so wherever I would travel outside Alaska, I would find myself enchanted anew with those big branching deciduous trees I took for granted during most of my midwestern childhood. Oaks & maples. Sycamore trees. Elm & walnut. Passing pedestrians would scowl baffled at what I could possibly photographing. A tree? Was there some interesting animal *in* that tree, perhaps? No. Just a tree.

I do love trees. I can't explain it. They comfort and reassure me in a way nothing else does. I anthropomorphize onto them all sorts of human qualities, like wisdom and courage and patience. For all I know, they're standing by the side of the trail wishing they could get up and move about as we humans do. Who knows.

Unfortunately, as I believe I've mentioned previously, the Brits have a difficult and complicated relationship with trees. Though they annually appoint a "Tree of the Year," one needs only turn one's head to the hilltops of the countryside to realize how much of the land was razed (and has remained so) for pastureland, and perhaps mere folly of exhausting a country's natural resources. I haven't looked into the "why" of it -- I only know what I see, which is a lot of treeless terrain.

Fortunately, a friend recommended a large woodland trust area about an hour from my house, crisscrossed with numerous trails winding through hill and valley, most of which is wooded, or even forested with scattered clumps of Douglas fir. As long as you can rationalize the large stacks of felled tree trunks waiting to be turned into lumber (and who knows what else), the hiking is pleasant, in sunny deciduous groves interspersed with dark and moody thick forest patches that call to mind hobbits hiding from the Nazgul. (Honestly, I must utter to myself, silently or, sometimes, aloud, "Gandalf said 'Stay off the road'!" each & every time.)

But those same places are also a draw to other humans on this tiny island, as well, so my antisocial tendencies lead me to seek out less well-trodden trails. If most of the people are going left, I'll go right. If the trail is narrow or muddy or overgrown, so much the better.

This morning's hike took me back to that same forest trail system, but with the car park already crowded at 9am, I crossed the road and started down a dirt trail on the other side. It was fine. Clearly little used. Trees & bluebells. Nice and quiet.

Not exceptional, but, y'know, fine. About twenty minutes into the hike, I saw another person with a dog, a big beefy pitbull. The guy put his dog on a leash to walk past me & my dog (whom I'd also leashed until we were past them). The guy, who did not return my "Good morning" greeting, seemed a bit worried about his dog, who seemed very interested in mine but not particularly aggressive. But we passed one another without incident. I continued to wander for another half hour or so, and then I started to hear someone shouting in the woods. The voice was male, and it sounded frantic -- not the fun sort of "whooping as we're jumping mountain bikes" sort of shouting but instead ... What's the term they use for broadcasters? "Vocal fry"? Something like that, a brittle sort of cracking but with a panicked desperate element to it. Though the voice sounded far enough away, it seemed to be traveling the same direction I was, which made me a bit nervous, especially as I did not (as usual) know quite where I was relative to where I'd parked my car, roughly southwest-ish. The voice was coming from northeast-ish, in other words between me & my car. Hmm.

Then I heard a clip clop of horse hooves behind me, so sidled off to the side of the road to let them pass. The rider, a woman about my age, seemed troubled. "What's all the shouting?" I told her I thought it sounded to me like some guy who had maybe lost his dog, though to be honest I didn't know, of course. She asked which way I was heading. I gestured vaguely "thataway." Her face looked grim as she suggested I might, in the future, walk on the other side of the road, as evidently this particular section of the trail system was "well-known for dog attacks ... and the like." Hmm. I thanked her for the advice and she rode off, glancing back at us from time to time until she turned her horse down a side trail and we lost sight of one another. I could still hear the shouting voice, about the same distance away.

Of course, nothing happened. I crossed the road, eventually made my way back to the car. No consequences other than the fear-mongering inside my head. Was that pitbull a potential risk to my dog? Or its owner a risk to me? Were there similar such people also roaming that set of trails? Was the shouting madman the same guy I'd passed or someone else? I'll never know.

The point is that this was another one of those experiences that falls into the category of "Things You Don't Know You Don't Know." How was I supposed to know that the trails on the East side of the road are safe, but those on the West side are for the aggressive dogs and antisocial owners. I mean, *I* am an antisocial owner, but pose no harm to anyone. My equestrian friend seemed to imply the same could not be said for others in that area.

Of course, it's all part of the adventure, being in a new place. A person can only study and prepare so much before setting out into the world & experiencing it firsthand, consequences and all. You just have to take your knocks, I guess, and not feel too cowed or embarrassed by them to prevent you from trying again.

The first time I visited London, I was swept up in the whimsical notion of "popping into a pub for a pint" as I walked along Leicester Square. What could be more British! So I strode through the door of the next pub I found, so terribly proud of my "carpe diem"ing, & jostled my way through the crowd to belly up to the bar ... and was immediately shouted down by about a half-dozen angry Brits standing on the OTHER side of the (central) bar, who were queued up and properly waiting IN A QUEUE!!! to order their proper British pint in a proper British pub in the proper British fashion, thankyouverymuch! I was so embarrassed that I turned and fled (they were, admittedly, VERY shouty at me!), never again (on that trip) finding the courage to try again.

Similarly, another trip, I ventured into a pub but sat down at a table expecting table service, like in the US. Alas, such is not the custom here, and I probably waited a good twenty minutes or so before I realized I had to order at the bar. (It should also be noted that my experience with British customer service finds the culture nowhere near as helpful/pandering as America's "customer is always right" policy -- sometimes charming & certainly less pesky, but in circumstances like the pub scenario, hardly supportive.) Of course, that experience was more privately embarrassing (and less shouty), so I felt less of an urge to flee.

The world abounds with things we don't know, of course. I have read -- and continue to read -- books about British culture, learning new things all the time (like Stephen Fry's quip on the panel show, "QI," about "the wrong sorts of leaves" on a train track, which got a roar from the [British] audience but went right past me*).

But of course I'll never know everything about Britain, any more than I'll ever know everything about America, or Alaska. Or anything, really. I guess an adventurer just has to be resilient enough to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. Shouting dog-walking British madmen, notwithstanding.


(* - For any interested party, the reference is to "The wrong type of snow" or "the wrong kind of snow", a phrase coined by the British media in 1991 after severe weather caused disruption to many of British Rail's services. ... Henceforth in the United Kingdom, the phrase became a byword for euphemistic and pointless excuses.)


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