THE FIRST STEP IN GETTING LOST
Forget that I saw the poster warning hikers of active mountain lions in the area. Forget that it was 4:00 a.m. and my feeble headlamp struggled to prick the pitch black. Forget that I was alone hiking up Mt. Massive. Forget that every step I took in the eerie silence echoed off the slope with just enough delay to sound like footsteps right behind me. And if we (all the voices in my head) all could please, please, just drop the memory of the missing dog flyer taped next to the mountain lion warning at the trail head.
Frank had dropped me off at the trail head and left. I didn’t even have a car to return to for comfort. I was isolated as well as alone. Damn Frank. I trudged uphill like a man climbing the gallows. My skin prickled with the notion that all eyes were on me – rabbits, squirrels, mice, birds, and of course bears and big cats were silently watching me from just beyond the reach of my light waiting to see what happened next.
Mountain lions didn’t make a racket like bears when they rushed you. The big cats padded right up behind you or jumped you from a high point, like the slope to my left for example. Perfect. With these thoughts running loose between my ears, my mind began doing its thing and turned those ideas into a mental movie. The attack would come from behind. I would be taken down quickly and hoped it would be a quick end, you know, like the stories where mountain lion snaps the neck of a steer. Just let me be dead before it started to feed. Situational priorities. I shuddered. The Indie Short continued with Frank waiting at the trail head for me never to return, the ensuing S&R, and memorial service with a closed casket finished my production. The whole thing repeated again and again with greater embellishments in each new loop. Fear is a more powerful search engine than Google when it comes to discovering new information. With Google you can at least close the page.
I knew this was all bullshit of course. I knew it was just my own programmed thinking reacting to the circumstance around me. Being a glass-half-empty guy, my movies always go in this direction. I mean, I could have been focused on the exhilarating stillness of the night, the feel of the crisp air, and a Zen sense of oneness with nature (as long as that oneness wasn’t in the form of my remains in a steaming pile of big cat crap). But I leave those glass half full thoughts for those annoying happy people who just insist on seeing the good in everything. it was too late for me. My Fear had slipped its leash and was running wild as it so often does. I understood very well the dynamics of what I was feeling and why. But recognizing and understanding Fear isn’t enough to stop actually being afraid. Intellect can make its sweating thrusts, parries, and slashes in a futile effort to hold it off, but Fear is too street wise and experienced. The whole thing is a knife fight in a dark closet. Emotion always leaves Reason in bloody ribbons on the floor.
This was the mental racket that kept me busy on the dark trail until I came up on a looming thing blocking the trail. A huge tree had fallen down the slope across the trail. When I say huge, I’m over six foot and could just barely see over the fallen trunk. I barely stopped as turned and clawed my way through the brush up and around the monstrous tangle of roots ripped up from the ground. The twenty yards or so of uphill bushwhacking left me breathless. On the other side, hands and face scratched up, I swept the ground with my lamp to pick up the trail. It wasn’t there. I moved up and down the slope along side of the fallen behemoth, but there was no trail. It wouldn’t be the first time I missed something right in front of my face so I tried again. If my wife was here she would just point to where I was already looking and say, “Look. Its right there in front of you.” But Tracy wasn’t here. Up and down I moved with my light flashing its ghastly pale over the tree, the ground, and the brush for any sign of a trail. There was none. The trail had vanished. Just like that. Judas priest.
This can’t be right. I struggled back back around the tree. There was the trail, plain as can be. It couldn’t just stop under the fallen tree. I must have somehow missed it. I fought my way through the brambles to the other side again. More scratches and I was breathing hard now. No trail. I repeated this a number of times because I couldn’t get it through my thick head that the trail could just stop under a fallen tree. My incredulity driving me around the blackened tentacles again and again.
To make a long, boring part of the story short, I began fanning out from the tree in an effort to pick up the trail that I knew had to be there. Up and down that slope I went burning precious energy. I could feel the burn in my lungs from working them hard. I got further and further away from the fallen tree. And here is where I did something right. Having been lost before and not liking the feeling one bit, I was careful to find a point of reference that I could recognize from a short distance and use to guide my way back to the fallen tree. This would keep me connected to the trail that I did have.
A tall lone pine towered above the downed tree as if standing guard over its fallen comrade. As I moved around in the darkness farther and farther out, I would keep an eye on the black silhouette of the big pine against the not quite as black night sky. It didn’t help one bit that as my light moved, the shadows moved in response. The early morning was alive with lurking shadows. I pawed around the area until down mercifully began to break. As the light increased, I could see there was no trail anywhere. I looked at the big pine, freaked out for a moment because it looked different in the emerging light, and began making my way back.
Back once again at the fallen tree, scratched and worn out, I decided to hike back down and try to hitch hike out until I could pick up a signal and call Frank. Studies show that sixty-one percent of people who get lost, get lost because they left the main trail. Embarrassed, I scrambled around the fallen tree one more time swearing full throttle at the branches and prickers, found the trail, and headed back.
I had gone six steps and heard voices. I stopped and tried to hear something over my tinnitus. When you’ve been alone and up against it, another human presence is a life saver. Maybe they could figure this mess out. Listening to the chatter get closer, I was mortified to realize they were kids. Well shit. Was I going to have some little kids save my ass?
“Not that way. This way.” I head one of them say to the rest of the group. They were closer now. Instead of standing there like a scared idiot, I got moving. Only about twenty yards from the fallen tree I found them taking a break. There were four kids, I’m guessing about age twelve, and one mom. She was passing out sandwiches and treats to the group. They were sitting right at a split in the trail happily chattering as they munched their snacks. There was a sharp switchback I had missed earlier in the dark. They fell silent as I lumbered towards them with scratched arms, face and torn clothing, back from the dead.
“Right. Don’t go that way,” I growled jerking a thumb over my shoulder and kept going this time taking the switchback on up to the summit. I’d have to hump it now to make up for my lost time. I didn’t want Frank to wait too long at the trail head and think something went wrong when I didn’t return.
I made it up and down. Frank was waiting for me at the trail head. He took one look and asked what happened. “Wrong turn,” I said with nothing more. Another 14ner bagged. But here it is years later and I’m still think about searching for that trail in the dark where it didn’t exist. And of course when a thought keeps coming back again and again, it’s a signal that there’s something profound on the other side of it. So I think about that time, I think of the tall pine I used to keep me anchored as I groped around in the darkness in every widening circles. My imaginative movie screen likes to retrospectively play out what could have happened if I didn’t have that anchor to keep me connected to what I really needed – the trail.
I could never make any sense out of why that part of the trail stopped so abruptly at the tree. Some things we just won’t know. But what I do know is that the first step to getting lost, losing our way in all the fear, doubt, anger and confusion that presses us off course, is to abandon our connection to what is vital. What we think is vital and what actually is vital are usually different. I thought it was vital to find the trail that wasn’t there. What was actually vital was staying anchored to the trail that was there. In life, fear, doubt, anger and confusion press us to think we need to measure up in a bigger and better way – new stuff, more power, different circumstance. What actually is important is to live out your core belief underneath all those layers. Be a selfless, decent person to the world your in. Stay anchored to that. Stay found.