That's Not Your Path — But it Sure Looks Like it
Sometimes we spend a little too much time worrying about the obstacles that lie ahead. Here's how to balance planning ahead, with enjoying the moment:
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The forest trail runs away from me, winding down the mountain and through the valley beyond until it disappears on the horizon.
“Did we miss a turn?” I ask myself. “I didn’t see another trail.”
And yet, the path I’m on is carrying me in the exact opposite direction I’m trying to travel.
“What the hell?”
Just as I contemplate doubling back to look for a missed turn, I come over a gentle crest in a rolling hill and realize my mistake. I fell for an optical illusion: from my viewpoint, the trail perfectly matched up with some distant dirt road.
The real trail hair-pinned, bringing me directly back toward the parking lot just a quarter mile away.
I love getting the lay of the land: the more you explore, the more landmarks you learn to recognize from past adventures. The better I recognize the area, the less I find myself feeling lost, questioning whether I’m going the right way.
Today is different though: the plan is to scale an enormous rock formation that stands like a western wall, towering over the trails I’d been hiking for the past several weeks, and blocking the view of the mountains and valleys beyond.
To get to the top though, we’ll have to journey outside of my familiar terrain, before doubling back to climb the shoulder of the butte.
My friend braces against the side of my car while stretching out his quadriceps. “You ready?”
I hesitate. “In a minute. Let’s check the map again, first.”
We head to the small kiosk standing at the edge of the dirt lot. It displays a map of the area, beneath a small overhang that protects against the elements.
“Straight here, left there, then right—” I trace my finger across the map, “—then way back here, after the creek, we make a hard left back toward the rock.” A plastic case beside the big map held dozens of paper copies. I reach for one.
“Good thinking,” my friend says.
In a move I would immediately regret — I unfold the map to double check the route. Confused, I look from the board, down to the paper in my hands, then back.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“It’s not on here,” I point down at the page. “The turn-off should be here, but there’s no trail heading west, at all.”
“Weird. Do you think we have a problem?”
“I don’t know.” I mark the spot where the turn should be with the stub of a pencil. “I think we go for it, and just keep an eye out for any big turns branching away from the main trail.”
What feels like every hundred paces, I pull the map from my pocket, trying to locate our position along the route.
“Just here, by this straightaway.”
“This is it, the segment where we turn back East for a bit.”
“I’m not sure if that’s the creek. Could be?”
“Is that the trail—no, wait, that’s a run-off ditch.”
My eyes flit over to investigate anything to my left that looks even remotely like a path. The map checking becomes an almost compulsive paranoia.
I’m afraid I’m not on the right path; that we’ve missed our opportunity to turn off and see this incredible view; and that by the time we realize our mistake, it will be too late to go back.
Eventually, I simply can’t hold onto the map any longer. We reach a steep section of trail, over unstable rock. I need both of my hands free in case I slip.
At the top of the hill, the trail forks to the side, and bam, there it is: A sign beside the opening in a split rail fence reads “Elephant Park.” An obvious path bordered by neatly arranged rocks and logs heads westward, toward the butte. The turn-off would have been impossible to miss.
The second half of the hike flies by, although the path is tougher, and steeper. It brings us along a wide shelf in the rock formation, and we’re treated to a non-stop, breathtaking view over the surrounding woods down to the lake below.
I no longer feel the need to consult the map. The way forward is obvious, and awe-inspiring.
After a few minutes walking along the ledge, the trail turns directly into the rock face and becomes a scramble. We pull ourselves up and find ourselves at the edge of a burn scar, likely sparked by some lightning strike last season.
At the center of the charred forest stands a magnificent lookout rock.
We keep to the trail, taking care not to disturb the signs of new plant life peeking up from the rock and ashes.
As we make our way up the final leg to the pinnacle, the wind howls, tearing over the top of the rock and almost sweeping my hat off my head.
We howl back, in a primitive, involuntary reflex as we step onto the top.
On the hike down, I didn’t check the map once. I found myself captivated instead by birds and wildflowers growing alongside the trail.
On the way up, I’d been so concerned I was on the wrong trail, I almost didn’t let myself enjoy the journey.
What a deeply human feeling.
We worry about the path we think we’re on. We worry about the path we think we’re missing. Worry, I’ve come to understand, is merely a misguided attempt by our brains to get out ahead of something we cannot control.
We waste hours agonizing over obstacles that might not even be in our path, overlooking the joyful and beautiful moments in our panicked contemplations.
Once in a while, put down the map. Worry less about where you’re headed, and more about where you are.
I Want to Hear from You
Have you ever worried about an obstacle —on the trail or otherwise — that wound up not even being in your path in the first place?
If you don’t feel like commenting, clicking that little heart button means a lot to me; it’s a great way to let me know this story resonated with you.
Sharing Your Adventures
Last weekend, I asked if any of you had incredible views to show off. Some of you shared truly beautiful places that I hope to see some day too.
This submission comes from Patrick, of the Pyrénées in France:
Patrick happens to be a fellow writer who produces a monthly publication called “The Nomad Historian.” If you’re interested, you can check out his work here.