By Lida Wise, Wilderness Conservation Corps Crew Leader
I am clambering hands and knees through an endless tunnel of rhododendron, finally emerging only to be greeted with waves and waves of weedy doghobble. I tromp on heedlessly, soaked and scratched to bits. When I get back down to the river that I’ve been picking my way up for the better part of the morning, I take a deep breath and resign to my unfortunate fate. I plunge one cozy dry foot into the cold rushing river, followed reluctantly by the next. Deep into Shining Rock Wilderness with the trail nowhere in sight, I’ve decided that hiking up the river is the path of least resistance.
At this point, my theory that I am not quite where I believe myself to be, (what some may term as ‘lost’), has gained some serious support. Still, even with this self-doubting theory gnawing at the edges of my original plan, I charge on with a particular destination in mind. The well-worn path and definite sites of human occupation long since gave way to the faintest traces of use, but I did not consider turning back. How often do we hurtle blindly along paths without pause to consider where we are? I had begun my day as many people do - looking no farther than one boot in front of the other, following tangible trails that had been solidly delineated by others. And now I was merely conforming to an invisible path, made real by nothing but a firm belief in my desired destination.
Zigzagging back and forth up the river, with time ticking by and dark clouds looming on the horizon, several thoughts run through my mind. Obviously, I’m considering my folly at the assumption of a low-risk day hike. And then, as inevitably crops up whenever I put myself in dubiously safe situations, I’m reminded of my mother. Just as my thoughts are reaching the dire prospects of giardia-laden water and a soggy leaf mattress for the night, I halt mid-current. There, upon the left side of the bank, lays a snippet of the well-worn tread. I follow it up and onto the most beautiful sidehill bench I have ever laid eyes on, and then hungrily continue to follow it upriver, admiring the ease with which I move through space. Though my boots are lead weights and squish-squashing at every step, never in my life have I appreciated a trail so much. I press on.
In a single moment upon reaching the trail sign and conferring with my map, my illusion of a set path was shattered and my sense of self totally shaken. It was this moment I discovered that not only was I following a different branch of the river than I had supposed, but even worse, that a perfectly well-established trail ran along the opposite side of the entire stretch of river I’d bushwhacked up. The irony of this fact was almost too much for me to bear. I hung my head and dragged my feet back down the trail. Alone in this moment, I was not only the most embarrassed I have felt in a good long while, but I was filled with self-doubt. If I can’t trust myself to successfully follow a path that has been laid out for me, what can I do? How could I be so limited by my own perception of where I was going?
Only in moments of uncertainty, discomfort, and smallness do we truly give pause to consider the paths we've been hurtling along. Wilderness provides the potential for these moments; Wilderness is where we are stripped of the reassuring guidance of social structures and the comfortable padding of technology and laid bare in the immensity of what we call nature. The result is raw experience, and we have the freedom to digest it as we will. That day in Shining Rock Wilderness as my lead weight boots propelled me back down the trail, I decided that my misguided bushwhacking adventure was not so much a reflection of my own weakness but an opportunity to learn about myself. And although the prospect of dry socks and hamburgers beckoned me onward, I paused at a particular spot I had passed by earlier on the wilder side of the river. As I was reliving those raw real moments of lost, I realized what I had found -- an awareness of the paths I forge for myself, and deep gratitude for the existence of Wilderness.