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Navigating | By Stacy Appel

Winter light spins a pale gold web through the redwoods as we make our way along a narrow rocky trail high above the creek. My brother is a seasoned hiker, proud to lead the way on this precarious path he’s convinced me to walk rather than the easier main trail through Muir Woods. Far below us, near the central entrance gate, a swarm of noisy visitors spills from the tour buses into the parking lot, cameras and thermoses slung over their shoulders like insect wings.

Peter steers me away from the clump of poison oak to our right, then pulls me in sharply when the overhang of a branch cuts abruptly across our path. I’m touched by these small courtesies. He was an Eagle Scout as a kid, and I remember how naturally he took to camping trips and long treks so many years ago, somehow knowing without instruction how to pitch a tent or start a good fire from sticks. Even without a compass, he could discern which direction was northeast or sense a storm coming in before anyone else.

Together we pick our way up an incline, testing for traction on ground slippery with damp leaves and small stones that slide every which way under our boots. I stumble on a large root, startling myself—the way my heart suddenly pounds makes me realize that, despite Peter’s surefooted lead, I’m actually very anxious about our proximity to the edge of this mossy cliff. Our vantage point above the creek offers a stunning view of the old-growth redwoods, but one misstep could send me tumbling down the hillside into the silvery rush of water below. My brother slows his natural pace so I don’t feel hurried, though he’s not aware that I notice this.

Hiking is what we do best together. On this chill, fragrant afternoon, the splendors outweigh the risks. In years past, Peter and I have fought in nearly every restaurant in the Bay Area, yet here on the trail, we are quiet together, listening companionably to the occasional cry of a raven or a jay before the noise is swallowed up by the sponge of dank forest. We listen to our breath, to the gentle muted thud our footsteps make on the packed earth, to the far-off laughter of tourists clustered at the trailhead. I can almost hear the trees themselves when I listen more deeply in the spaces between the other sounds.

As we continue along the ridge, the path levels out and we arrive at the small set of steps etched into the hillside which marks the beginning of our descent. My brother bounds ahead, showing off a bit, tall and lean in his blue fleece jacket and jeans. I know he’ll wait for me down below to make sure I take the proper fork in the trail with him. He’s probably hungry by now so we’ll wind our way back to the entrance gate and consider where to drive for dinner.

At the edge of my memory is another trek we undertook years ago. The afternoon of the day my father died, Peter and I couldn’t think what to do with ourselves. Breakfast in a posh restaurant near the hospital in D.C. where he’d spent his last hours was an expensive, spur-of-the-moment mistake. We left our elaborate plates untouched and drove my rental car out to Cabin John, a regional park we half-remembered from childhood. At the commissary, we bought potato chips and ice cream sandwiches and set off slowly on the path along the lake. When, inevitably, we got confused—even angry—about the direction of the trail we had supposed we knew, we turned back and ended up sitting on a rock, shivering, wolfing down our snacks. The sun went down and the moon came up, turning the surface of the water to mirror glass. We couldn’t get our bearings in this once-familiar place.

For a long while after Dad died, Peter couldn’t bear my company. He lost himself in work, in relationships, in Santa Fe and on Maui, on mountaintops and in foreign countries. Mourning turned out to be a deeply private journey for each of us, and the day by the lake was the fork where our paths diverged.

But here in Muir Woods so many years later, we might be forgiven for imagining that we were never lost at all, never afraid, that it has always been this way: one of us waiting up ahead in a slant of sun for the other to reach the clearing. My older brother leans luxuriously against the trunk of a redwood tree, grinning when I spot him. He has no idea exactly how small he looks in the shadow of a thousand-year-old redwood, or how very tall he looks to me today.

Stacy Appel is an award-winning writer in Lafayette whose work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune and other publications. She has also written for National Public Radio. She is a contributor to the book You Know You’re a Writer When… by Adair Lara. Contact Stacy at


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Photo by Jim Lopes.