You are hiking through Virginia on the Appalachian Trail in mid-October. The leaves are turning, the aggressive red of the maples outshining the golds and browns. The air smells clean and fresh and you can hear the geese as they pass over on their way south, so you let yourself think that you’re really deep in the wilderness instead of a mile or two off Skyline Drive, where a steady stream of cars and campers is conveying thousands of people to view the fall colors.
At the top of a steep hill, you stop, ostensibly to admire the view but actually to catch your breath. There, just to your right, under a towering oak, sits a well-stuffed easy chair covered in rich brown leather. It comes complete with a matching ottoman and a side table containing a cut glass decanter, a brandy snifter, and a plate of chocolate truffles. Next to the plate is something that resembles a television remote control.
(a) Pretend the chair isn’t there and hustle down the hill to continue your hike?
(b) Pull out your cell phone and call the park rangers to come immediately remove this item that does not belong in the National Forest?
(c) Sit down on the chair, eat one of the truffles (noticing the rich dark flavor of the chocolate, the hint of almond), pour a little brandy into the snifter, and lean back to enjoy the view? And then, after a few minutes, pick up the remote control and wonder what might happen if you punch the channel selector?
You are walking down the street in the business district of a major American city, wearing your dress-for-success business suit (black, but with a daring red blouse), carrying a briefcase, headed for a meeting in which you must make a major presentation, complete with Power Point slides. You come to a small gap between two towering office buildings and see not the expected alley with garbage cans and perhaps a homeless person or two sleeping in cardboard boxes, but a tree, trunk perhaps five or six feet in diameter, extending as high as the skyscrapers around it. Big thick limbs come off the tree every few feet, growing out to touch the buildings before redirecting skyward.
You look up, and see several tree houses among the branches. The lowest one is a simple platform – like a child might build in a backyard tree – but higher up you see one painted red and decorated with Chinese symbols in gold and another covered with shingles that appears to go several stories. Several boards hammered into the trunk provide a crude staircase up to the first platform.
(a) Pretend it isn’t there and hurry off to get to your business meeting on time?
(b) Pull out your cell phone and call the mayor’s office to get someone to come and do something about this at once?
(c) Put down your briefcase, take off your pumps, and climb up the steps to the Chinese platform, finding a pot of freshly made green tea and a device that looks like it might be an electronic version of an abacus? Sit on a cushion, pour yourself a cup of the tea, and pick up the abacus?
Your sister is hosting the family for Thanksgiving at her home in the suburbs. She’s stuck in the kitchen with your mother, her mother-in-law, three aunts, and an uncle, meaning you’d just be in the way. The rest of the adults are yelling at football games on television. The teenagers are in the basement playing video games, and the younger kids are running through the house playing a game that seems to be more about screaming than anything else.
You slip out to go for a walk in the brisk November air. Your sister’s street is a block of almost new brick homes with large, well-tended front yards and trim all painted the same basic white. At the end of the block is a playground, containing the usual mix of swingsets and slides. But in one corner stands a rocket ship made of dull gray steel pointed toward the sky. It looks as if it belongs on the cover of a 1950s science fiction magazine. There is a rickety set of stairs leading to a door in the side of the ship.
(a) Pretend it isn’t there and walk quickly back to your sister’s house to watch the football game?
(b) Pull out your cell phone and call the police to demand that someone come and remove this dangerous object from the playground at once?
(c) Climb into the rocket, find a spacesuit, put it on? Sit down in front of a control panel, fasten your seat belt, and study a complicated keyboard with any number of levers and switches and a big red button?
If you mostly answered (a), just move along. Nothing to see here.
If you mostly answered (b), you are to be congratulated for taking the time out of your busy life to fix all the problems you see around you. Though it’s pretty obvious why so many people think you’re an officious busybody.
If you mostly answered (c), clearly your mind is not bothered by things that ought not be. Enjoy your excursions, but be forewarned. If you change the channel on the remote control, you might find yourself in the Amazon instead of on the Appalachian Trail. If you make adjustments to the abacus, you will find a completely different city when you climb back down the tree.
Someone with your willingness to try new things has probably already guessed what happens if you punch the red button.
This story originally appeared in Flashes of Illumination.