Before I headed out with my boyfriend Roy on our short, but steep, section hike on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), I had read a few books and listened to several YouTube videos about hiking the A.T. Between going off-trail to relieve yourself to heading down the wrong trail to just not paying attention, you can end up getting lost in all the information. So many options! I figured that the odds of getting lost on our journey were slim to none since Roy was a veteran, having hiked 531 miles of the A.T. before (yes, he is a badass). We were also only going to be on the trail for two days, so how lost could we possibly get?
Being lost is relative. Being lost is not being sure of where you are in relation to either your hiking partner, your pack, or the trail you “thought” you were on. I can’t tell you I was ever actually lost on the trip, but I know I definitely felt lost several times. Perception is reality and there were many moments where I wasn’t sure where I was.
This is what I learned about being lost in the woods:
Water is essential for life. On day one of our hike, I was clambering across a slide of fallen trees, grabbing onto roots above for dear life, when one of my two water bottles fell out of my pack. It slid down about 10 feet off the trail into the slide area. Roy and I looked at it for a bit. Roy thought about taking off his pack and going after it. We weighed our options and, although it was in plain sight, the downside of retrieving it was too great. We had three bottles of water remaining between the two of us. Although it was in plain sight, it was lost.
After we found the shelter we were going to camp at for the night, we hung our packs in the shelter and went off to look for water. Before arriving at the shelter, there were some double blue blazes indicating a trail to either water or another destination. There was a sign at the top that read: “Wesser Creek Trail.” The guide book had indicated that there was a water source within a tenth of a mile of the shelter. Somehow, I had confused “creek” and “water”. We headed down what seemed like a six-inch-wide trail. I was glad we didn’t have backpacks on, as the trail was precarious. There were several switchbacks and a few blue blazes, but no indication of water. I was exhausted and just wanted to get into my sleeping bag. I felt guilty for having lost a full bottle of water earlier. Roy soldiered on for a few more switchbacks, but by now, we had gone at least a half mile more and the shadows from the trees were lengthening. We gave up and started hiking back up to the shelter. As I contemplated not being able to find water and what that might mean, we ran into a young guy running (yes, jogging shorts, t-shirt and no pack) on the narrow trail. We asked about the water source and it was down the main trail (white blazes) about a tenth of a mile. We may have been on a trail, but it was the wrong trail. Creek and water are not the same.
No. I was never naked. Meaning, I was never without clothes. But when we went down the Wesser Creek Trail, I felt lost from my belongings. When I thought we were venturing off for 10 minutes to find water, I wasn’t concerned about being without the pack. As we went down our precarious detour, I started getting nervous about our packs hanging in the shelter. They were hanging so that mice would not get into them. There was a warning about bears in the area. I started to get anxious and concerned that when we arrived back at the shelter, that there would be a full-on party of bears and mice tearing our packs apart. Had I left anything uneaten in my pack that would attract bears? After carrying all my earthy things all day, I felt naked without the pack and nervous that we would be stuck in the woods overnight without our things. We arrived back to the shelter to find everything intact. I felt lost from my essentials.
As we descended down the mountain on the second day, we started to get warm as the sun came out. We stopped to take off some of our layers and Roy decided to change into shorts. About a quarter mile down the trail, Roy realized he didn’t know where his cell phone was. He headed back up the trail to see if he dropped it when he changed. I stood and waited. He returned. No phone. He realized that it might be in his sleeping bag located in the bottom of his pack. I decided to head down the trail while he unpacked. I knew his pace was much faster than mine and I didn’t want to slow us down. I soldiered on down the trail. Pretty soon, I couldn’t see any white blazes marking the trail. I started to panic. I turned around to walk back up the trail. I started yelling for Roy. I figured that he should have caught up by then. As he arrived down the trail, the white blaze appeared again. He confirmed that I should have turned back to make sure I was on the trail. For those five to ten minutes of separation, I felt lost. Without my hiking partner and white blaze to guide me, I felt lost.
The hike is a great metaphor for life. Things may be in plain sight, but you can still be lost. You may be temporarily lost, on a detour, down the wrong path, but you can still find your way home. You may feel lost from something you feel is essential, but you still have you. You may be separated and unsure of your next step; it just might require doubling back. The greatest gift from the experience is that regardless of where I thought I was or wasn’t, I could rely on myself to find my way out.