While running on a familiar trail near my home a few weeks ago, I started noticing baby footprints in the dust. Not just a single footprint here and there, but a regular line of them, stretching out ahead of me. It seemed such an unusual place to have a child walking barefoot that I took a photo of a footprint, with my hand for scale.
I decided that someone must have had their child out for a walk or a bike ride--a kid with those petal-soft soles that are paradoxically silky to the touch and yet able to skip across gravel or pine needles seemingly without the pain that I, with my calloused middle-aged feet, can only manage to navigate in wincing hobbles.
"Good for you, kid!" I thought, picturing the free-range youngster, tousled hair, scratched shins and bruised knees--the way kids used to look in the late 1900s before all of us helicopter parents in the early 2000s subscribed to the bizarre concept of keeping our eyes on our children 24/7. We left our footprints everywhere in those days: in the cherry orchard, overripe fruit squishing between our bare toes; in the cool sand along the river; even in the satisfyingly smooth mud of the pigpen.
I didn't see the footprints again, so I thought nothing of it for a few weeks. Until I was on a hike, far out in the Sawtooth Wilderness, and I saw signs of that crazy baby again.
I followed the baby up the dusty trail, across a couple of small snow fields, and onto a rocky ridge. Large, widely-spaced toes atop a sturdy sole with no arch; they were unmistakably troll baby footprints. I'd lose the the prints for a while, then regain them in the powdery dust of the trail. Lupine and paintbrush were in full bloom, perfuming the air; marmots bundled along boulder fields; fish jumped in sparkling lakes. I was in the zone.
But at some point in my alpine trance I realized that I was following not a troll baby, but a brand. Another hiker (I'm pinning my bets on the wiry bearded trail runner) was wearing trail shoes with novelty footprints.
Fortunately, the older I get, the increasingly easier it becomes to laugh at myself. So I laughed. Unfortunately, the older I get, the increasingly easier it becomes to turn pretty much anything into a metaphor. So I waxed metaphorical.
I thought of how we're always following in our own steps, striding in the fierce footprints of our toddler years, the bold stomps of our fearless tweens, the shuffling gait of our awkward teens, and on into adulthood, where we tread carefully until we reach middle age: a place of startling confidence and contentment. Those people we were back then aren't just part of our past--they're still with us, and we draw on them when we need their courage, their sass, their insight, their humility. Bolstered by our own presence, we march on, forever shadowing ourselves.