On her long, arduous journey in “A Worn Path,” Phoenix Jackson initially confronts three natural obstacles that are part of the story’s physical landscape. These three objects—a hill, a thorn bush, and a creek to cross by traversing a log—also reflect the landscape of her life; they represent obstacles constructed by white society for an elderly Black woman during the Great Depression in the South.
The first obstacle that Phoenix Jackson encounters as she trudges along a path is a hill.
The path ran up a hill. "Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far," she said, in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves. "Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay."
Her physical climb mirrors the uphill battles she has fought throughout her life and still faces today. For example, she never had a chance to obtain an education. By the time the Civil War ended with the “Surrender” at Appomattox, she was too old to attend school. Before the Civil War, she probably was a slave (or at least a descendant of one) with “chains about my feet” and a possession of someone who “always take a hold of me.” Her observation that something “pleads I should stay” describes the resistance of Southern confederates to the abolition of the institution of slavery. In the present day, Phoenix endures but does not fold under age, poverty, condescension by others, and her obligation to care for her severely injured grandson.
The second obstacle is a thorn bush she brushes after surmounting the hill.
But before she got to the bottom of the hill a bush caught her dress.
Her fingers were busy and intent, but her skirts were full and long, so that before she could pull them free in one place they were caught in another. It was not possible to allow the dress to tear. 'I in the thorny bush,' she said. 'Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass—no, sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.'
When she finally frees herself, she declares, "Sun so high!" and laments the wasted time spent on freeing herself.
This passage reflects the never-ending entrapment of slavery and systematic racism. Despite working furiously, she cannot liberate herself or completely resolve her situation. When she extricates herself from one area, her skirt is caught in another place. This Sisyphean task is made even more stressful because of her poverty: she cannot “allow the dress to tear” because this “dark and striped” dress may be her only nice dress. The thorn bush imagery and declaration “Sun so high” recall Jesus’s crown of thorns, a painful burden before his crucifixion and rise from the dead. The bush is doing its “appointed work. Never want to let folks pass,” which recalls how Christian slaveowners used religion to justify slavery. Her statement “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush” foreshadows the ageism she encounters from a hunter and healthcare workers later in the story.
The third obstacle Phoenix meets is a “a log was laid across the creek.” She cannot cross the water without balancing on the log to use it as a precarious bridge.
"Now comes the trial," said Phoenix. Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and she was safe on the other side.
"I wasn't as old as I thought," she said.
The creek represents the divide between antebellum and post-Civil War South. In order to navigate that social transition, Phoenix must endure racial narrow-minded prejudice just as she walks on the narrow log. Determined (“fierce”) and persistent despite fear, she succeeds in passing through this “trial” in spite of her “old” age.