FIELD TRIP: The Enchanted Forest

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Pinterest is my happy place. It's where I go to when I want to forget all the troubles of the world and build a whole new wardrobe, design my fabulous dream home, or discover all the wondrous destinations I never knew I needed to visit. $10,000 designer handbags, custom-fit kitchens, and r♥mantic weekends at Château Eza are all mine for the "pinning" on my virtual vision boards. The sky is no limit and I love it.

Now after a life spent in big cities, I long for the great outdoors and frequently browse the "Outdoors" category for inspiration. One day in March, I came across a photo that captured my attention. The vibrant image of a forest filled with slim, moss-covered beech trees surrounded by a carpet of purplish bluebells was at once calming and ethereal. I immediately repinned it to my "Things to See, Places to Go" board and once I learned that the Hallerbos forest in Belgium was so close to me in France, I vowed to make going there a priority this spring.

Photo: Four forest scenes

"Who knows where I'll be this time next year?", I thought. "You have to go. Just do it!"

Mother Nature is tricky. I cleared my schedule during the peak weeks of April-May to be available to travel at a moment's notice. I went on "hyacinth watch" and checked in with a local website to get updates on the blooming season. I watched as it rained and rained and rained for days on end and dampened my mood with the weather. I wondered if my chance would ever come. Would spring ever arrive or would I miss it and regret not putting in the extra hours at work while I waited for some stupid flowers to grow?

Then, Sunday morning via the magic of Google translate, I read the following from Natuurpunt Halle:

  • 29 April: the forest is at its best. Fortunately, with sunshine this afternoon. The beech trees begin to bud. Who the sunlight still want to see the hyacinths should not wait too long to visit.

I booked my rail tickets for the next morning and on Tuesday: May Day, I set out for Brussels-Midi.

OMG. OMG. OMG...

Not a single soul of the first five people I spoke with had ANY clue whatsoever what I was talking about when I sought directions from the station.

"Hallerbos?" I asked as best I could pronounce in Flemish. "Les fleurs bleus en le fôret?" I tried in broken French. What was the word for carpet? Forest floor? Why didn't I remember I saved a screenshot on my iPhone bring directions? Ugh.

The man behind the information booth pooh-poohed me off to inquire at the Metro station below where I pounced on three subway workers engaged in conversation, and tried again.

"Ah, oui… les 'bluebells'," one exclaimed.

"C'est magnifique! Magnifique!" another agreed.

Yes! Armed with easy instructions to catch the N.2 or N.6 Metro, transfer at "Mo-go-merry", and then take the N.44 Tram to the end of the line, I was on my way to see bluebells just like the ones in the Pinterest picture!

OK. Wait.

I get to this amazing park. Yes, it's forest-like with acres and acres of thin, moss-covered beech trees. Yet, I walk for an hour not once seeing anything - any verbiage anywhere - that refers to Hallerbos on the trail markers. "Tervuren?" I wonder suspiciously. I realize I do not see one hint of a teeny tiny, purplish bluebell peeking out from the dense, leafy carpet. I'm in the wrong forest! I know it. Ugh. Heavy sigh.

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Photo: A good spot for a lunch break

What's worse is that I have to walk a second hour all the way back to the park's entrance. I stop at a random bench to eat the turkey sandwich I brought for lunch but keep glancing at my watch, calculating a Plan B if there's time to travel to the REAL forest. If I can find it. Not wanting to waste time, I resist the urge to linger (my butt is wet from the damp seat) and walk some more. I pause to watch a wildlife photographer filming birds flying over a small bridge, figuring surely he's been to the field of flowers.

"Non, je ne le connais pas, madame." Nope.

Later, I pass a group of 20-something girls and decide to wait for them to catch up. "No, we only took the bus here today," one offers in English. Huh?

"But, they sent me to the wrong forest," I whine. The girls shrug and walk away.

Spirits down and ready to call it a day, I stand in a conundrum not far from the grand stairwell to the exit and stall for decision time by framing how to take a photograph of a lover's message scrawled on a tree. I recognize two men and a woman I'd seen earlier, one cradling a camera that hung from his neck. I assume he's a nature enthusiast and must know of these damned hyacinths.

Gold.

"Yes, I have heard stories of them but have never seen them with my own eyes," he tells me in heavily accented English. Then after conferring with his companions who nod in agreement, he confides, "Yes, those flowers are in this area, but not here." (insert small sigh) "If they are in this park they will be on the other side of the lake," pointing in the direction from whence I came.

Thanking them for their time and noting that I'd walked to the right of the lake and not the left, and that I'd come all the way from Paris to see these flowers to which earn a round of Ohs and Tsks Tsks; I set out again and walk to the left. Surprisingly, I see a post, just a cement post about knee-high and capped with yellow paint. It triggers a memory of something online instructing me to follow the "yellow" trail, and it stands at the foot of a small path off the main walkway which leads directly to the big lake. Sending a silent prayer to God, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Krishna, Ra and all of the above that I stay on the path and Please, please, please... see me some bluebells. I take the left turn that snakes between the trees.

True to Murphy's Law, I pack hard-core survival provisions and it doesn't rain. The sun peaks through the forest canopy but my backpack is heavy with water, snacks, an umbrella, two caps (one wool, one waterproof), a rolled up down jacket (I know), deodorant, spare underwear and toiletries (in case I have to stay overnight), my flight attendant flashlight, two cellphones (plus chargers), and various other tidbits in the event of an emergency or boredom on a train. I wear a light cashmere sweater from J.Crew (because that's what one wears when hiking in a forest) with a quilted vest and I get hot from the exertion. Sweat is covering my cashmered back but I keep walking and walking and walking and following a yellow marker and a double yellow and red marker but not the yellow and red marker in the form of an 'x' marker and, at last...

OMG, is that a hint of purple beyond the trees lining the other side of yet another lake?!

Photo: Faites accompli! Bluebells.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

The forest is alive with them. Their soft fragrance permeates the air. The trees are green with moss. And the forest floor is purplish blue. I am restored with a sense of calm and faith through perseverance. I'm IN the Pinterest photo!

A couple is nearby and for a time, we are the only people in the area. Quietly and reverently, we each take our share of pictures and when they leave, I stand alone to enjoy the energy. I feel grounded and connected to the earth again and am grateful for the opportunity to be in this space.

Hearing others approach, thus breaking the spell, I look around and spot a triangular formation made of branches that resembles a tee-pee. Next to it lay a sort of deconstructed bird nest. Along my walk were other such curious structures. A house. A chair. If I had known I'd keep coming across more of these, I'd have taken more pictures, I thought to myself. Almost as if on cue, three school kids barrel in front of me, jumping off their bikes and hopping up to the structure propped up around a small tree.

"This is our territory," a girl with a British accent explains to no one in particular (at least not to me). "We come here after school and this (something something something something." Is she talking to me? Yes, I learn. The three are students in Belgium while their parents work at the EU (or UN) headquarters. My new friend reveals she is Canadian but speaks with a British accent because she spent most of her young life abroad in England. I tell them how I live in Paris while I work in New York, and of why I want to see the Enchanted Forest and the blog I hope to write about after my visit. The three friends contemplate continuing the work of the local boy scouts who build the natural structures and considering how it's a cool thing to do, I agree. They pose for the camera. I wave good-bye and glad to meet them before I'm back on the path to discover the rest of the park before I leave.

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Photo: Kids build an enchanted teepee in the forest

I'm not far when the two girls chase after me to ask again why I am writing this blog and its address (Hello, girls). I explain to them just as sure as I tell you now, "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do something. Find out what makes you happy and then go for it no matter what anybody says. Even if it's in the wrong forest. Go live your dreams!"

It's called Delicious Destiny.  Indeed, it is.

Photo: The Enchanted (Mystery) Forest of Tervuren, not Hallerbos

À la prochaine….