The endless sea of tall green pine trees had engulfed every aspect of the horizon. With each I passed, ten replaced it. Nothing seemed to change as the forest walls became a monotonous eyesore. I shouldn’t have been so focused on the pines, but rather the destination at hand. Which itself was nothing special, but returning to the parked bright red Saturn and turning on the AC was reward enough to encourage me to continue my hike.
The trails are the only place where I feel truly alone. The occasional bird chirping and rustle in the surroundings were a comfort in the desired loneliness. I can watch as the sparrows fly just above the canopy and see their small brown bodies through the thin canopy of needles and green leaves above the path. Finally away from the speeding cars on the paved road but accompanied by the songs of the branches and forest floor.
I have been on this path numerous times. Either joined by my father or brother who always made hiking more of a chore than a passtime. Dad wouldn’t talk much, but he always liked to be ahead and spoil the surprises of what nature had to offer on our adventure. Once, he had claimed to have seen an eight point buck before us. It had disappeared into the surrounding wild before I could see – the wonder was ripped away when he was here. Going with Nick was what I could only imagine handling a toddler was like. Though older than me, he would demand to come and then complain the entire time. He wanted to drive, wanted to go down the green trail, his legs were hurting, his shoe was untied, he wanted to turn around – he wanted to do the opposite of everything I do when set out onto the trail.
Today, however, both had been reluctant to join me. Not that I had asked, but they had seen my preparations – filling up the water bottle, tying my shoes, putting a few small snacks into my backpack along with an extra water bottle and bandaids. Nick would’ve asked to join me then, but he walked past me with nothing more than a glance before he turned his attention back to his phone. Dad barely said goodbye since his focus was on the television in front of him, watching yet another rerun of Seinfeld.
Hiking was an activity best done alone. I could walk at my own pace, take breaks, and choose which way to go every time. It was not nearly as fun when I came with my family. If I wanted to go down the red path, Dad would say it was too long of a trail and that we needed to get back home for dinner. Nick would outright refuse until I gave in and did what he wanted. Though it wasn’t often I loved hiking alone. Especially down the red path.
It was longer than the green one, and it was a trail that led back into the other after about four miles. I had never finished the red path in full. Dad was hesitant to cross over the three-mile mark, believing that it was out of range from any cell towers. His voice echoed in my mind anytime I saw the name of the trail: What if something happens? How will someone help us?
Nick never wanted to come down this way.
I was focused on finishing this trail, the goal being to make it around the complete circuit, rather than turning around and crawling back the way I came as if I was a scared child. The mileage wasn’t a problem for me, but rather the motivation to continue walking through a path that became repetitive.
The spot that Dad always had us turn around at came up ahead. There was a large spruce tree where he would lean his arm on and say the fatal phrase: Lets head back. I did not stop this time. Before me was an environment I have never seen before. The monotony was ending, and refilling my mind with the adventurous spirit that had been lost. My heart rate was quick while passing by the turn-back-tree and stepping onto the untouched trail. My eyes flicker back and forth across the land in front of me. The trees on the surface look the same as the ones now far behind me, but these ones were special. My eyes had never settled on each of their leaves, branches, or roots before as if they had just been placed there just now. My eyes were new as I explored further, eyes tracking over each divet in the bark.
The path curved ahead and left my field of vision surrounded by the towering natural wonders. These were new trees, their leaves seemed lighter than the ones before it. There were less pines and tall spruce trees encompassed more of the space. I stopped just before the turn, and I looked in front of me between the trunks and brambles and listened.
The classic chirps of the forest were familiar. I could whistle along to the calls, clicking my tongue when the birds would finish their songs. The leaves rustled in the cool breeze which fended off the blistering sun. The sound of brambles and bushes spread throughout the forest was like a choir – the tenors following the lead of the sopranos flowing along with the soft whistle as the wind conducted.
There was nothing as relaxing and centering as standing surrounded by the giants of nature. I took a step off of the path, facing out at the forest, and sat down against the rough exterior. Everything before me had been here long before I had. As new as it all felt I wonder how long they truly were here – tens of hundreds of years, maybe. They have been untouched by the human inspiration and were left to be the bystanders as to what happened outside of the borders of the state park.
Far before me was nothing but the same hills and valleys of the trees. It was quiet besides the soundtrack of the forest and I realized that I couldn’t hear the sounds of the cars passing by on the road, such as the honk of an impatient driver or the screech of a break being tapped just in time. There were no other hikers, no voices lingering behind nor echoing miles ahead. The empty air was replaced with what had been here before man. The earth was untouched and left to thrive alongside the animals that called the canopies and dirt home. How was it that something could be so fresh? Somehow, this space had been spared by humanity. Nothing was man made nor resembled something that had been left behind by a lone hiker than may have passed before me. I didn’t care if my phone was disabled, nor did I desire to check, as I wasn’t alone in these moments.
The one difference between the trees was one in the distance ahead of me. It was as if there were red leaves fallen around the base of the tree, or that the bark was dyed to mimic a fire truck. The more my eyes focused on it, the more it stuck out amongst the greenery. I glanced behind me at the safety of the path and hesitated at the idea of investigating this possible miracle of nature. I had never seen a tree like that, and for a moment the thought that it may be a mirage.
Looking at the path behind me one more time, I set forth towards the oddity. How was it that there could be something so strange in the middle of this serene isolation? I had never seen anything like it, let alone anything such as a red tree. It was an image out of a preschool crayon drawing.
The closer I got, the more I noticed. There were white speckles, and it seemed that only the bottom of the tree was red. The rest of the pine branches above looked just as the others did – evergreen. There seemed to be fuzz, perhaps it was red moss – growing along the tree or even taking it over. This other form took over the base and was suffocating the natural beauty out of it.
It took until I was near the perimeter of the tree to realize that what I was staring at was not a phenomenon of nature, but rather a grotesque invasion of mankind. Surrounding the base of the tree and the majority of the exposed trunk were plush red creatures, with giant white eyes and strange dark smiles. These Elmo dolls weren’t just sitting against the tree, but they were nailed into the bark, rusting over the faded black metal that sat driven through the chests of the stuffed animals. Some were stapled there or hung from the lowest branches. Their pupils were long gone, worn away by the rain most likely, and the fuzzy red bodies sagged towards the earth.
The scene from a horror movie seemed surreal and took my mind a moment to catch up with my heart that was about to jump out of my chest. Who thought that this, of all places, was where they should have their occult shrine? Had this been the action of a cult, why did they choose Elmo? Why this tree? During the night when the moon is at its fullest and highest point, did they dress in thick black robes and dance around the base of the tree, torches in hand and chating ‘Elmo’s World’? Or, perhaps this is where they brought their sacrifices to suffer the wrath of their worshipped God in the middle of the woods where no one else could hear their screams?
A cult that worshipped Elmo would be too much for fiction purposes, let alone in reality. But I couldn’t begin to think of a logical reason as to why this tree, so far off the beaten path, was chosen for this shrine. Whoever decided that this was going to be their first public art piece hadn’t thought their actions through hard enough. This took stage fright to a whole new level.
Someone coming out here and deciding this was appropriate to do in this protected space bothered me the most about this. Not the horrific monstrosity in front of my eyes, but the individual who sat stapling and nailing the childrens toys to the tree. This was the one place I felt connected to my roots – the roots of the natural world and the beauty it could produce. This is where man was not supposed to be and therefore not interfere with the natural cycle. They would one day fall off of the tree, whether it be natural causes or my own hand, and they would be left to degrade in the dirt. Animals would take the stuffing and build their nests with the extra insulation or even attempt to snack on the innards. Elmo would never leave this place, plaguing the earth for generations since his body wouldn’t blend back into the earth. Maybe one day, someone would find them fossilized – and wonder what other odd creatures sat beneath the dirt. These weren’t supposed to be here. They tainted the wonder and freedom of the area which was few and far between.
The use of the Elmo dolls was the most concerning to me because it wasn’t something that an adult would lean towards when creating a distasteful art piece. Usually that fell along the lines of spray paint. Perhaps it was meant to be a disturbing popup in the middle of the premade tranquility. Someone believed that this was the perfect spot to show their creation. It was off the trail and only in view if you were looking for a difference in the sea of trees. This wasn’t supposed to be located easily. Had my curiosity not gotten the best of me, I wouldn’t have seen it myself. This was meant to be hidden from public view. The artist wasn’t afraid of showing their work, but wanted to have someone stumble across it and have the same reaction I was having.
That left more questions than answers. If this was an art piece it should’ve been seen – that’s what art was for. In the case of this piece, it was no different – something that should’ve been seen if it was what my mind believed that it was, not that I even wanted to believe that it was sitting there in front of me. If it wasn’t an art piece, then what was it?
I walked around the tree slowly, taking the time to scan over all sides and what kinds of dolls were on it. There weren’t just plush bodies, but plastic action figures that hung from the branches as well as Elmo’s dressed up in crowns or t-shirts. Though they were all similar, some had more damage than others. Perhaps someone’s child had outgrown their Elmo phase and they didn’t want any of the toys anymore, and the parent thought that this was a dump zone for the long forgotten child obsessions.
This was too put together to be a dump. Someone took the time to nail the dolls to the tree, and arrange them around the tree. No one who just wanted to dump the toys would have put this much effort into the act of trashing the unused clutter.
I had loved Sesame Street when I was a child, and Elmo was the staple of the show. He had been my favorite as well – my toy of choice to cuddle with late at night. I was attached for years until second grade when my friends had stopped watching the show. He was shoved to the bottom of my toy box and forgotten about until I stumbled upon the mystery in front of me. Maybe it was a graveyard for long lost Elmo’s of children like me. Ones that outgrew their childhood favorites and tossed them off to the next set of the obsessed.
Cousins of mine were still young enough to appreciate and love the singing red puppet. Seeing the show pop up on the television reminded me of preschool where I carried around my Elmo backpack every day. It was my most prized possession – Santa had given it to me for the holidays the year before. It was special – everyone loved Elmo, but no one else in my daycare class had a backpack like mine. I could remember how cute my aunts and uncles thought it was, his smiling red face on the back of the bag for the world to see as I skipped off to preschool. I would play with the bag and hold the face in my hands, singing “Elmo’s World” as I played with the ‘real’ Elmo that I could carry around everyday.
Now the only times I saw him or thought of him were when I got stuck babysitting while the parents of the family went out for drinks and dinner. One of my youngest cousins, Thea, slept under an Elmo blanket every night. She had had it as long as I had been babysitting for her. The brightly colored blanket painted with reds, greens, and yellows had his face smiling in the middle of it. She brought that blanket around with her everywhere that she went. Even when she was sick and stuck in the hospital for a week, the blanket followed her there. Laid out over top the off white excuse for a blanket was the colors and character that brought light into Thea’s eyes.
She was no different than any other child, but she walked out of the hospital afterwards and continued as if nothing had happened. Maybe this was a tribute to someone, a child much like Thea, but not as lucky. A family longing for their lost child could have come out here and hung the dolls in a way of remembrance of the death of their loved one. A life taken far too soon from the world memorialized in the forest where they would be left from the hand of man, forever thriving amongst the grasses and growth surrounding.
It was a good thing that Elmo would not decay out here. The stuffing, whether it was packed into a new nest or left on the ground – Elmo would live on. His red body would stay on the tree as long as the staples would hold it there – and it would not be touched. This place was protected, and protected this memory. Even if I didn’t understand it myself, I knew that this was important to someone out there, someone who had walked the Red path many times before. Maybe it was the family’s favorite tree. Either way, Elmo would remain out here as long as nature would let it.
I looked over the tree for a few more moments. It was a melancholy realization that was I thought originally was a horrific cult symbol was possibly the memorial for a passed on child. Childhood was never considered grotesque, and in this untouched space it is the first thought that my mind towards. This was the perfect place for this memorial to be located – away from the trail where someone could come along and destroy it, but at the turn in the path, where one who was looking for it could locate it by walking straight through the small openings between the trees. This was just as natural as what grew around it – the earth didn’t know the difference.
I stood for a moment longer and watched the fur blow in the wind before I turned and began my trek away from the unknown. Getting back on the trail felt odd, looking down the section that I had yet to walk down yet. Maybe there were more Elmo’s further down, or one decked out in Barney merch. With the tree in my mind, I continued on.