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The Urban Pathfinder

`Continuing straight ahead with blue markers, the trail descends at a fair grade through the conifer forest, crosses a brook, comes to a level stretch and passes a spring. Still descending moderately, a marshy tributary is crossed after which the trail reaches the right bank of the Opalescent River and crosses it on stones.' - Directions from Avalanche Camp to Feldspar Brook, from `Guide to Adirondack Trails'

FOR a big-city resident like myself, pathfinding is quite a different problem than that faced by a hiker through the Adirondack Mountains. And even more different for a boy from the Missouri woods, where I once played. After living in New York for some 10 years now, I've learned that getting from here to there takes more than just following blue markers straight ahead, descending moderately, and crossing a river on stones.

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It takes the ability to find and keep a single path through the mind before even setting out the door. What seems the inexorable linearity of tramping along a forest trail becomes on city sidewalks a constantly shifting challenge to my original intentions. Walking down Fifth Avenue past million- dollar boutiques and homeless people sharing the same block, how many times have I found myself asking, ``Now where am I going?'' If I weren't perfectly sure at the outset, I doubt I would ever arrive.

Although some may disagree, I think people are far more likely to dally in a bookstore than beside a marshy tributary. A flashy display in a store window catches our attention longer than a conifer forest ever could. I even think that spotting Greta Garbo out for a walk would stop us in our tracks faster and harder than suddenly catching the view of the Opalescent River.

WHEN I was young I lived next to some woods laced with many trails. Most of them ran sharply downhill toward the Missouri River, and each had a name. ``Broken Tooth,'' famous for a sledding accident whose victim was long forgotten. ``Smiley's,'' in honor of the judge who once lived at the bottom of its first dip. And ``Living Bridge,'' which had a gigantic oak tree, miraculously still living, blown across its steep gully.

I hiked through those woods all day, finding it pure pleasure to set off at the upper end of the run, knowing that at the bottom I would be stopped by a river far too wide to be crossed on stones. And the trail really did lead straight ahead, especially in the summer when the undergrowth on both sides was so dense I could only see frontward. When the descent finally smoothed to the level, I knew I'd arrived where I wanted to go.

But 25 years later I'm not certain if all those trails are still clear, I can't say if the ``Living Bridge'' is even still alive. It has been too long since I've set off down a path with that kind of foreknowledge, sure of how to get there and what I'll find when I do.

I wonder if living in the city is somehow the reason for this uncertainty. Or is it that my life now has too many paths toward too many goals?

I'd like to think it is the city's fault that pathfinding is not as easy now as it once was, because I've always intended to leave anyway. Move back to the country and follow again a single trail. But I realize it has more to do with who I am rather than where I live. After several career changes and with a family I too often ignore because my mind is elsewhere, I know the problem is mine, not New York's.

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SO I can't in all honesty blame complicated subway lines and bus routes whenever I lose my way. Streets in New York are marked at least as well as trails in the Adirondacks. And here they are all numbered, so I have even less reason for getting lost.

When in midstride I suddenly forget where it is I'm going, it must be because I've forgotten something more important before setting out.

No, I can't blame that on where I live. The problem is the pathfinder, not the path.

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