I stand in defense of looking sideways – not with the suspicion of a sidewise glance or the malice of a side-eye – but sideways, as in “around,” on either side.

The thought occurred to me about halfway to Hemlock Falls, way in the boonies of North Georgia, where Susan and I are spending a few days on a working retreat. I’m writing, she’s painting, and occasionally we’re hiking.

The trail runs through a narrow ravine on a shoulder above Moccasin Creek, and in many places it’s not overly wide, or was plagued by icy or muddy spots remaining from a recent snow. When we saw another couple coming toward us, we stopped and stood to the side to let them by.

That’s when I had a revelation, which is over-speak for “I was reminded of something that I shouldn’t need to be reminded of.”

To appreciate my moment of inspiration, you’d need to know that, with the exception of when I’m driving and probably too prone to enjoying the scenery, I’m a straight-ahead kind of person. On task. Type A. Head ’em up, move ’em out. Focus on the job, and see how much progress you can make.

(Photo: Tony W. Cartledge)

That can apply to hiking, too. If my AllTrails app says it’s six miles of hilly terrain and should take three hours, I want to finish in 2:45. If I’m hiking for my health, I want to burn as many calories as possible.

But that doesn’t always work. It can frustrate Susan, who likes to stop and admire a moss-covered stump, or the way the light plays on the water, or a bright mushroom peeking through the leaves.

I slow down to wait and can be patient, but it’s always in the back of my head that the clock is ticking.

(Photo: Tony W. Cartledge)

On the way to Hemlock Falls, though, as we stood aside from a tight part of the trail, I looked across the noisy creek to the opposite ridge, and spotted a small but impressive rill of water bursting from the rhododendron and splashing onto an angled rockface before trickling down to Moccasin Creek.

I would never have noticed the bonus waterfall, however small, if we had not stopped, if I hadn’t looked sideways.

I made it a point to scan beyond the trail for the rest of the hike, taking note of icicles trailing down strands of moss, of a tree with roots reminiscent of banyans taking over ancient temples in the jungles of Cambodia, and of a tiny streamside cascade from which we slaked our thirst with icy water.

(Photo: Tony W. Cartledge)

It made for a richer, if less vigorous hike, and challenged my thinking.

What if I looked sideways and made eye contact with the homeless man flying his cardboard flag at the intersection, rather than studiously keeping my eyes straight ahead?

What if I looked sideways more often while teaching, taking note of which students have giant question marks or exclamation points over their heads – or have an expression that suggests they just lost their best friend?

What if I looked sideways at the hard-pressed people who showed up for work at Wendy’s and kept the place running while they were short-staffed or when others were out sick? What if I took the time to thank them for being there to take my order, and maybe left a generous tip?

What if I took a day off from my writing project to look sideways at community needs, then take the time to donate blood or volunteer a few hours with a worthy non-profit organization?

Would looking sideways make the little world I inhabit a better place?

I think I know the answer.

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