Day 54

Halfway between mini-golf hole #8 and the backside of Starbucks, Jessica and I (with Sarah in tow) came to a stream without a bridge. We were in West Essex Park — 1,360 wooded acres on the border of Morris and Essex counties, stretching 6 miles along the Passaic River.  But the river was behind us. The woods were to the left of us. We were somewhere east of the mini-golf course, heading toward a Starbucks strip mall.

 We’d been walking for about 30 minutes: we’d followed the Lenape Trail, the Freedom Trail, and the marked yellow trail, coming to dead ends along each. Now we were at the stream. We could see the yellow trail continuing ahead through some wooded brush and a strip of marsh land. Starbucks  was visible through the thinning trees, but if Jessica saw it, she wasn’t saying anything.

“We could cross the stream over those two fallen trees,” I offered weakly, pointing to a forked pair fording the running water a few yards upstream. I was Jessica’s guide. I was Ms. Big Walk. I was in charge. And I hadn’t shown her much of a good time yet on these thousand acres…just one dead end after another.

For her part, Jessica was being quite a good sport. She was a sport about the dead ended Freedom Trail, she was downright cheerful about walking through the surreal dips and curves on the miniature golf course. And she was quite calm about crossing the stream straddling two fallen narrow trees. 

But she lost her cool somewhere beyond the sneaker-sucking bog, when we heard a horrible screaching sound overhead — I mean, I’ve been in the Nicaraguan jungle and this sounded exactly like a troop of howler monkeys.

“What the hell was that?” Jessica shaded her eyes. We craned our necks.

“Oh my God,” we said in unison.

Some 20 feet overhead, high in a winter-bare tree, we saw the bushy striped tail, rear-end, and two hind feet of a racoon swimming in the air.

“I can see the whole tree from here but I can’t see his head,” Jessica said.

I had to break it to her. We, or Sarah, or maybe the sound of the Starbucks espresso machine in the middle of this great wood, had startled the daylights out of that poor creature, sending it head-first into a hole in the tree, screaching and thrashing like a howler monkey as it went. Now it hung overhead, its clawed feet silently peddling the air.

“What if he’s stuck?” Jessica said.

“He’s not stuck.”

“Winnie the Pooh was stuck.”

“Nah, he’s not stuck,” I said, hoping I was right.

Anyway, there was nothing we could do to help the poor thing: no park rangers, no wildlife managers, no one back at the mini-golf range we could tell to slip behind hole #8, waddle across the stream on the two splayed logs, and somewhere beyond the sneaker-sucking bog, in sight of Starbucks, look up and find the tail of a raccoon waving in the air.

“As soon as we’re gone he’ll come out and be fine,” we told one another. So we left. We forded the stream at a different fallen tree, threaded back through the golf course, crossed the main road, and returned to our car.

As soon as the raccoon calmed down I’m pretty sure it was able to wiggle out of the hole, climb down the tree, and return to its natural habitat. I bet he’s behind the Starbucks right now, drinking the last of somebody’s discarded latte.   At least, I hope he is.

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