He finished his day like he usually did - he closed his notebook, exited the lab and took the short walk to the gate. As he passed through, he gave a wave to the guard on duty, turned right and began the walk that would bring him back to the starting point in about half an hour - a slight uphill climb the entire way.
Autumn had settled on the woods the week before, bringing the trees to their full colors, but the weather remained comfortable. He let his mind drift as his feet automatically followed the path, a small smile creasing the corners of his mouth as he considered the simple beauty of the equations that explained the anomaly. The equations had led to many other discoveries, but his favorite would always be this one.
Close to the halfway point, he noticed that his right shoe was coming untied. As he knelt to re-secure the laces, he glanced to his right, and took a sharp intake of breath. He was looking at another path that curved off into the woods.
As he stood to inspect this new discovery, it disappeared. He slowly adjusted the angle of his head, and suddenly it reappeared. With some experimentation, he discovered that, when he held his head at just the right angle, there was a very narrow “window”, only a centimeter or two wide, that allowed him to see the new path. He stood in quiet contemplation for several minutes, and then pivoted 180 degrees. He spent several more minutes adjusting the angle of his head before he was able to verify that it continued into the woods in that direction as well.
He was amazed, but not surprised. Certainly the equations did not preclude the presence of another path (or for that matter, multiple other paths). In fact, he had spent some time several years ago trying to predict possible intersection points, but the theoretical nature of the exercise soon fell to the wayside, overshadowed by the discoveries that he and his team were making at the time.
He began running through the equations in his head. The curve of the new path was less pronounced than that of the original, and it appeared that it climbed in a clockwise direction. He made some quick mental calculations, and was fairly certain that two would intersect again close to the gate.
He was so engrossed in his mental calculations that he didn’t realize that he had started walking on the new path. He had only gone 3 or 4 meters, and he quickly returned to where he could see the disturbed gravel that marked the intersection. Or rather, that should have marked the intersection. With increasing desperation, he spent the next several hours trying to find the unique combination of angles that would open the "window". As darkness was falling, he came to the conclusion that finding the original path was going to take more time.
He spent a restless night there, curled up on the cold gravel. At first light, he spent a fruitless hour trying to locate the original path again. He needed to think, and he had always done his best thinking while walking. He hoped that walking in this place would provide the same inspiration.
He used the heel of his shoe to scribe a large X at the intersection point, then began walking clockwise. After two hours of walking uphill, he returned to his mark. He hadn't seen any other paths. Or buildings. Or people. Just the autumn woods spreading off in every direction. But he had formulated a idea.
He pulled out the small notebook and stub of a pencil that he always carried with him and sat down. By mid afternoon, the area surrounding him was covered with pieces of paper, some crumpled, some with large portions crossed out. The majority of the pages, however, were spread out in front of him. He had re-created the "theoretical" intersection equations that he had started years ago. He didn't have the anwers yet, but he felt fairly confident these equations would get him back home.
He stood, placed his hands in the small of his back, and bent backwards, eliciting a symphony of snaps, crackles and pops from his spine. He needed to stretch his legs and let his mind wander. He looked both ways, and eventually decided that one way was just as good as the other. His mind preoccupied with the equations, he started walking counter clockwise.
He came to stop some time later, a slowly building sense of dread finally breaking through his thoughts. He was surveying his surroundings, trying to discover the cause for the feelings, when the realization hit him hard enough to take his breath away.
He had been walking steadily uphill the whole time.