I seem to recall joking over the last few months about the in’s and out’s of navigation out here. Laughing off the heaviness of how being misplaced is just part of the experience. I had a great opportunity to practice the acceptance of that concept this last stretch.
For the majority of the last week I’ve been in the Gila National Forest. It’s incredible. Unique native dwellings, caves, sheer cliffs surrounding the river, and a whole lot of water. The Gila is a beautiful river. So rewarding to walk through that I hardly even noticed the work involved with fording the same river over 150 times. Still, it’s taxing on the body, whether your high spirits notice it or not.
One night, I came to these relaxing hot springs. It was a happy place with a lot of campers enjoying their time away from work and friendly talks with strangers. For reasons I can only chalk up to my German blood, I moved on after a dip in the pools and tried to put in another couple of miles before dark, even through it was 6:30pm. As I walked away, I got this strange feeling I was making a mistake, ‘Why am I opting to go spend the night alone just to get in another mile. I have all summer to be alone instead of sharing some laughs with strangers here at this happy place.’ I pushed on anyway, and told myself I need to stop doing that.
Then I got what I asked for. I woke up alone the next morning, pushed a little over 20 miles without seeing a soul, slept, got up, and pushed again, still no sign of another hiker. Around 2 in the afternoon, I was starting to get a little weary and uneasy. I had to do some scrambling in a box canyon. Trying to keep three points of contact with my heavy pack up steep rock with the gushing river under me seemed pretty crazy. “CDT, you rat bastard!” I said. “I’ve heard you were going to be brutal. I’m game…..I think” I really thought I should have made it to Snow Lake hours ago. Soon after, the river had become more of a creek than I expected. I tried a side trail to get up high and see if I could catch a glimpse of the lake and saw nothing even remotely like one. I came back down and carried on a bit more, then got out my compass (what a concept) and saw that I was traveling rather in the direction of south. It was then that I realized I was not where I was supposed to be. And not knowing where I went wrong, I figured I had walked right off my maps.
A range of emotions comes to play in those situations. Disappointment in oneself being the predominant. The “I want my mommy” feeling. Then acceptance. ‘Well, I asked for time alone and the growth of getting lost in the woods. There you go, kid!’ I turned around. Walked for the rest of the day hoping to get back to where I went wrong. Figuring I would either find a confluence I missed, or another hiker. Feeling comforted to know that I had that safety to walk back to. Climbing back down into the river canyon was right on the edge of my comfort level, but I pulled it off, and felt grateful.
Around 7pm that night, 12 miles later, I figured it out. The night before I had been exhausted and stumbling through the bushes trying to find a decent place to step on the bank of the river, and I didn’t even notice that a lovely little tributary, Iron Creek, had joined us. Rather, I joined it, and how! I followed that beautiful little stream for a day without knowing what it was.
I followed every turn in the river religiously with my map from then on. With my poles stashed and map in one hand, and compass around my neck. That’s how you navigate. That’s what I should have been doing the whole time I was on the river. I got lazy, and thought, ‘Sweet, just follow the river. Easy!’ Paid for it, learned from it, and ended up making some great friends out of the deal.
The next group of hikers I came to I stuck with. Brett, Butters, and Page. Page is driving a camper-truck to meet them and camp with them and their three dogs. We’ve been joking and telling each other stories about our homelands. A great thing to come out of my mistake. Or perhaps not a mistake at all.
Iron Creek rules!