“The Short Cut” by C. Beyers

An original travel essay written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010

 

“The Short Cut”

In my first few days as a Cornell University freshman, I stumbled upon a Christian Students’ Association barbeque, in which I had no interest. But before I realized that the veggie burgers were overdone and not the kind I liked, that the soccer ball was flat and the players not really playing, that something might be expected of me I might not want to commit,[1] I had been sucked into the hubbub of the event irresistibly by a real character – not one set to make me Christian, but one intent to change my mind about something, damn it, and well on the path to succeed.

Unless my memory fails me, he was at least 6’ 2” and wore a thick black or dark-brown beard,[2] which appeared to have originated from overgrown sideburns. He wore khaki shorts and sandals (I want to say Birkenstocks) and a shirt fitting for the organization he represented. Most importantly, he was very pleased to discover that myself and my roommate were freshmen, and thus new blood, un-initiated and all that – and was consequently ready and set to bestow upon us a bit of information privy to only himself and certain, privileged, upperclassmen.[3] “Most people,” he said with sincerity, “go by the foot-bridge to campus. But let me tell you! If you walk past Appel and the Obsevatory, there is a short-cut to the Ag Quad…”.

The “Ag Quad”, in this case, meant the Agriculture Quad, where the Science Library (called Mann), the Plant Science Building, and most of the Department of Education buildings on Cornell’s campus reside. As I did not, at that moment, realize that I was to concentrate in plant science, had even less of an inkling that I would decide (my Junior year) to go for a Masters in Arts and Teaching degree, and furthermore was oblivious that I would spend a good deal—in fact, most—of my time, for academic and non-academic reasons alike, on said “Ag Quad”, I stopped listening (where I’ve placed the in-paragraph ellipsis).[4] But as the semester wore on, and as I occasionally ate at the dining facility known as Appel Commons, I decided one day to chance the route the forward Christian senior had recommended.

The short cut didn’t seem to me all that much shorter to me (not even from the Appel Commons dining facility, and not even according to my handy-dandy pull-out campus map), but it did offer a change of pace, and surely enough few if any people ever shared the path with me when I took it. For one thing, an Observatory, by its very nature, must be set in a place from which it is easy to observe. This one (recall:  the first landmark I was told that I needed to pass) was set in a green area atop a hill from the perspective of which Appel Commons was at the bottom. The meandering asphalt path leading up to the Observatory was not too steep to climb, but it would have winded me if the same obstacle had sprung up on one of my cross-county runs in high school (and in fact did wind me on any day that I carried as much—or the equivalent of—a laptop computer and a textbook). And once you breathed deep and crested the thing, the asphalt path led you to a wooden staircase that dropped you like a brick down some 70-80 odd splintery wooden steps (the bottom, due to the tree branches hanging in from either side, being scarcely visible from the top).

By the aforementioned staircase, come January and February, a sign would be erected that read “No Winter Maintenance.” This was a bit silly, because by this logic there should have been more signs, signifying No Spring, Summer, or Fall Maintenance:  the only difference in winter was that there was suddenly more to maintain and the same amount of maintenance being practiced.[5] In lieu of admitting to laziness, however, Cornell erected a back-up sign for the rest of the year. It read “Natural Area, Use Extreme Caution,” which is, all in all, another way of saying “You could get hurt, here.” It was even a touch dishonest, I think, because aside from the Observatory and the pathway leading to and from it, the scarcely mowed meadow (i.e., maybe on Parents’ Weekend) and surrounding wooded area were unarguably also ‘Natural,’ and if any part of the landscape were less natural or unnatural there, it was the man-made aid to the change in elevation.[6]

Now the woods:  which were a pretty site in the fall, as all the chlorophyll in the leaves was being recycled, revealing vibrant under-pigments. For as long as the leaves were retained, the woods were almost dense enough for you to lose your sense of civilization in, except for at one point about halfway down the stairs, at which it was obvious that college students (like myself, and not like myself) had jumped the railing and cut through them. This was a favorite place to diverge, and a path so well trodden path as to look official branched from the staircase here. The path, furthermore, was a true short-cut, because a path from the bottom of the stairs led to the same destination, which happened to be a gorge overlook (at the dirty mouth of Bebe Lake) and a favorite place for college students to break the law, either by climbing down a gently sloping waterfall there and swimming about, or by taking another drastic short-cut to “swimming about,” by which I mean “gorge jumping.”[7]

When the staircase had finished it’s plummeting, it emptied into a dirt path, which in turn looped Bebe Lake. This was a favorite spot for joggers (even for my cross-county team, in high school) as it was almost a mile around, exactly. And straight ahead was a stone bridge that could have fit two lanes of traffic, if it were not designed for pedestrians. It had a stone boarder about knee-high (if you happen to be 5’10”) and foot lengths in diameter (if you happen to wear size 9.5 shoes), was slightly arched in the middle, and was a favorite spot for people slightly bolder than the gorge-jumpers to leap from.[8] What I am trying to say is, this area—through which you had to pass in the course of the friendly Christians private ‘short cut’—was actually somewhat popular. His genius (or his failed genius, or his folly) was that if you crossed the bridge, and climbed up another flight of stairs (stone, this time, and not so many steps), and followed a road that followed the edge of the Lake (and ignored a very tempting diversion to the Cornell Plantations, and a slightly less tempting diversion down to the other side of the lake), another dirt path up another hill would take you about a football field’s length, or so, and spit you out in a very pleasant walk-through garden. From here, you could easily take Warren or Caldwell Hall (two buildings on the perimeter of the “Ag Quad”) by surprise, just in time to beat to class your silly classmates, who had every one of them walked via the Triphammar Foot Bridge across the opposite end of Bebe Lake. Plus, because classes were generally in session as you walked to class, there were never any jumpers and seldom any joggers at that time of day, so the heard-of hang-out spot did indeed become an unheard-of route between places, which was indeed, as our friend had described, lonesome.[9]

Anyway.

You’re going to have to pretend, with me, that some time has passed now, and that this narrative, so far, has been relatively linear. The hectic beginning-of-the-year has morphed into a steady routine, charged with the adrenaline of prelims, and now finals should make for a bang at the finale. Our Christian friend, who we haven’t seen since the barbeque, is probably about fried from school, and is perhaps making B’s when he had been on Dean’s List for the last three semesters.[10] I’m a nervous bundle of energy, penned up in my room by my own design, and mostly watching YouTube videos.

Cornell gives its students a week to study for finals, during which its students don’t change, or shower, or go to the dining halls (save, on occasion, dinner). My roommate studied mostly downstairs, because our dorm (Mary Donlon Hall, in case that rings any bells) had a library on the first floor (while our room was on the third). He had accumulated a regular mountain of crumpled brown baggies from ordering out. For my part, when I do study, it’s mostly in a nearby dorm (Dickson, if that name is familiar) with a good friend of mine (who will remain anonymous). I haven’t been on campus for nearly two weeks, and haven’t gone by our ‘short cut’ in over a month. Study week has passed, I’m on my last exam, and it’s a stinker: Botany, which seems to me a jumble of semi-random things to remember.

My dear roommate Arthur has an exam today too, and presently comes in the room asking if I want to go to dinner. It was about forty-five minutes to the start of our respective exams, which should tell you something about Arthur. His eating habits are the best way to begin to describe him, in fact. Because he often sets a watch for fifteen minutes, and tries to go through the motions of getting a tray, loading it, and emptying it, before the sound of the buzzer. He calls this “efficient.” He is also overly impressed with entrepreneurs, mistakes fame for genius, money for sophistication, sleeplessness for empowerment, and is generally weird and extravagant about self-improvement. I call him “elitist,” and have done so to his face. He finds this funny.[11]

So I go to dinner—in part to humor him, as is my custom—in part because it occurs to me I haven’t eaten any “real food” since breakfast. We eat at the dining facility known as Appel Commons, down the hill from a certain observatory. And I guess you can see where this story is headed from here – at the throat of my love-hate relationship with a certain way less traveled by, known only by certain upperclassmen, our sort-of friend the Christian, and I.

I head for the Observatory. It is the cool part of a mild day. I have a backpack on, for no good reason, and we are at about 15 minutes before the start of my test, counting down.

The asphalt winds as I remember it to, and I get to the stairs. No hitch there. I get the urge to run down the stairs, and my inertia almost does it for me, but I remind myself that half of doing well on a final is staying collected. So no running, and no hitch. I cross the moderately pretty stone bridge, hardly noticing the moderately ugly view off the side of the muddy, bubbly, rumored-to-be sewage-filled mouth of Bebe Lake. No hitch, still.

I climb up the few and far-set stone steps, which I like for how they compliment my stride, and get to the edge of the road (which, for me, has never had a name), the path back to Bebe Lake branching left, and the sign leading to the Cornell Plantations off to the right, and the dirt path I want roughly between them. But there is something else straight-ahead (something that I almost walk headlong into): a fence. In fact, there are two fences, and in the middle of them there is a hole, which takes the whole of the road along with it.

The fence spans the whole length of the road, and also blocks the sidewalk. In fact, to my right there is a stone wall (on its other side, a shear bank edge), and the fence extends all the way to the far edge of this wall (so, completely covering it). The other side of the fence extends past the other side of the road, into and to the other side of the small ditch to the side of the road, and further into a wooded area. Guarding this side of the fence-edge, as if planted on purpose, I identify a line of poison ivy like a turret, and even if I were to tip-toe over the poison, there is a second line of defense: the road branching right (to the Cornell Plantations) is fenced in on the side facing me (the extent of which I cannot tell from where I stand, but expect is quite excessive). Clearly, the set-up was designed to keep something out, or keep something in.

Clearly, I have to turn around. But it’s 10 minutes to 7:00pm.

I am lucky the work-day is over. I am not lucky that graduation is approaching, or I suspect that Cornell would have put off the re-paving of this little section of road. I suspect, also, that Cornell has warned automobile traffic at a fair distance to either end of this obstacle, but I am not an automobile. Who I am is someone too clever to walk by the Triphammer Foot Bridge, which Cornell gave for the express purpose of getting to the Agriculture Quad. Who I am is a student so clever that Cornell could not even imagine the extent of my needs, and so didn’t have the foresight to warn me out of this predicament.[12]

So as to force my own hand, I throw my backpack over the fence. Was there anything valuable in there? I hope not.

‘There you go,’ I thought. ‘It’s like gorge jumping. Once you make the first motion you’re committed – and you want to jump out, away from the ledges you could break a leg on.’ So I climb the fence, and it isn’t that hard, except when I get to the top it starts to wobble. At this I jumped, awkwardly—like how my sister used to look in ballet class, before she discovered soccer—and landed such that my knees gave way weirdly and I ended on my tailbone with my head a head’s hair from the fence behind me.

I didn’t want to do that again.

Of course, at this point I was between fences, with a hole separating me from the woods and a wall separating myself and Bebe Lake. My urge to turn around is, therefore, ridiculous.[13],[14] This in mind, I turn my attention to the remaining fence. I don’t want to teeter again, so for this one I decide to stand on the stone wall to my right (which I am just tall enough to scramble on top of), and hold onto the fence lengthwise as I shimmy around it. This works—but not well (because, even this way, the fence proves unstable)—and so I throw myself forward and into another heap, in an effort not to fall over backwards.

I have no audience for any of this, and no one to tell. I get up, spend a minute dusting myself off, and limp up the dusty path to the garden, to Warren Hall, to Plant Science. When I get there, the TAs, stony-faced, are handing out the test, and there are 90 Minutes on and No Talking. I think, ‘If I had gone back, had circled Bebe Lake, I would have been at least 20-25 late’—just in time, maybe, to be told I hadn’t made it on time. I think, ‘They [the students] have no idea how I got here,’ because they all came by the footbridge, like they were supposed to. Because they never met the friendly senior at the Christian Students’ Association barbeque.

The room is still as death and my knee throbs, the blood finding the broken capillaries underneath my skin and, now that I am sitting, having no interest in any-artery else. Some people are visibly nervous, and have bags under their eyes. Everyone’s focus, but mine, is on this final assessment of how clever we all are.

I laugh, because it’s funny to think about what I was willing to go through to get here, as if this pressure-cooker of a final were Disney Land.

I laugh, because they are oblivious, and there is no way for me to impart this information.


[1] I should, I suppose, be happy that the Barbeque offered veggie burgers and soccer balls at all. But I am always one to make the worst of things when I am Nervous and exposed to something New, which was the case at this time and place in my young, inexperienced lifetime.

[2] I’m always being chastised for confusing black with dark brown, which leads me to believe that the latter is probably correct. I used to describe my hair as black until corrected. In private I still think it’s black, of course.

[3] This, at any rate, is how I picture his thought process – as cavalier, jovial, and sophisticated. Him: in the home stretch here, ready to walk at graduation. Us: at the starting line, asses in the air, reluctant and nervous to walk forth come our first day of classes. His voice was so very loud, so very animated, and so distinctly enunciated, I can find no other way to describe in what way he was “pleased to discover…that…[we] were freshmen.”

[4] In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I also did not listen because I was a budding atheist at the time, and was trying my very darndest not to make eye contact with him as I scoffed his complimentary (and, as I’ve alluded to, underappreciated) Bocca Burger.

[5] Indeed, leaves and branches would fall on the stairs and not be swept, rain would slicken them and not be dried, dogs and deer and small rodents would poop on them and not be shooed, or cleaned up after. Many steps, as I said, were splintered—especially where the railings met the woods and on the several landings—and water, as it is wont, had slipped into the cracks here and there and wrought varying degrees of decay. The staircase, I guess, is an accident waiting to happen. But it will probably take a decade before it does (the “probably” is where Cornell comes in with its signs to dodge potential lawsuits).

[6] Then again I guess it is not completely fair to belittle the sign, because I did observe some nature from the stairs, which I would not have seen otherwise. Mostly boring squirrel nature and white-tailed deer nature, but early that same Fall Semester (again, unless my memory fails me – and it was a different season) I saw and photographed (from a safe vantage point) a coil of snakes. I believe they were in the process of mating, but they could have been emerging (it is difficult to tell the difference between hatching and having sex, you see), and at any rate looked like an undulating ball of yarn within poking distance of the bottommost landing. In point of fact, these snakes gave me reason to keep returning to class by this my not-so-short “short cut.” I found the creatures quite remarkable, and to prove it showed up five or ten minutes late to class on the day in question, for all of my gaping and gawking.

[7]Some interesting asides: when I myself gorge-jumped my freshman year, I believe it was only the third law I had ever broken (the others being one moving and one parking violation). And in my junior year at Cornell, I managed to cut the underside of my foot to shreds on the “gently sloping waterfall”, which was quite the exciting affair.

[8] It is unfortunate, but true, that students at Cornell do occasionally commit suicide by jumping off the bridges here, but this is not one of the bridges used for that purpose. This bridge is maybe two stories and a little bit above the water, and the water is on average probably 10-12’ deep (I don’t know that anyone has touched the bottom, and it certainly cannot be seen bellow the suspended particles). Under the circumstances, it would be difficult to commit suicide unless one tied a lead weight to oneself, and if one’s method were drowning.

[9] But agreeably!

[10] This is, in fact, what happened to me in my last semester of undergrad, and I am extrapolating onto this poor, hapless soul. However, when I say that I was “fried from school,” keep in mind that I am writing this travesty for a Non-Fiction Creative Writing Class as part of a study abroad program based in Rome, Italy, and I am—at this very moment, almost—missing my own graduation to write it. Then you may decide whether or not I am telling the truth.

[11] Arthur is a short and skinny little Asian fellow from Vancouver, and aside from his elitism about nothing of his character is consistent. For instance, he literally roles on the floor laughing hysterically (or used to) at the “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” flash video available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIMGgBLOwfg (that is, when showing it to me after he has already seen it, multiple times), and I cannot, for the life of me, reconcile this with the rest of him.

[12] Don’t even get me started on all the ways I am clever. I’m writing this account from Rome, Italy, where my room in my apartment doesn’t lock. So I decided to hide my wallet and my debit card in different places to trick the pesky robbers, and changed my mind about a hiding place so many times—and hid it so very well—that I woke up one morning fully believing I’d been robbed, and remembered where I’d stowed everything only as I was searching for my phone to tell somebody.

[13] I tend to be a very logical person in times of trepidation, for which the above is not the best example. When I was 11 or 12, I was swimming in a river (at which it was aloud –“at your own risk”—so I wasn’t breaking any laws) with my cousin at my aunt. My cousin, older than me by a few months, went to explore more closely a waterfall. As he did so, he got caught in a whirlpool at its base, and was sucked under. At this point, it did not occur to me that I should try to save him, or that he needed saving – although his mother was of a different opinion, though fully clothed. In a few seconds I saw her shoes sticking up in the air and I thought—of both of them—‘Why fight? Why don’t they let the current take them? If they let the current take them, they’ll be fine.’ Mayhap because we are all related they did, in the end, figure this out, and within twenty seconds were bobbing on the surface a few meters downstream. In the meantime, though, my mother’s heart was all aflutter, and I was calm as a tortoise on his day off.

[14] The retelling of the cousin misunderstanding does remind of a fourth incident (before the act of gorge-jumping my freshman year) during which I broke the law. Once upon a time, with my mother’s permission, I forged her signature on a document. This was a long, long time ago, but I can still remember. It was back when our cursive looked the same.

—written by Christopher Beyers

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