Because I inherited my zeal for vacation planning from my dad, it wasn’t long after he invited me to go to the writing class that we began to plot the hikes we would take along the way. He charted our route, one that would take us into Yellowstone through the Tetons where we would revisit the trail to Hidden Falls. We’d hiked it the first time he and mom took my brother and me to Yellowstone back when we were the ages that our own children are today. Six years later, I hiked the same trail with an Old Faithful coworker. Five years ago, I hiked it with my husband and the next year we returned with our children.
I am familiar with the trail to Hidden Falls.
This time our destination was beyond Hidden Falls and past Inspiration Point. We were going to Cascade Canyon, further in and closer to the craggy Teton summits than I ever imagined I would get.
Morning people by nature, we were on the road before our 4:00 a.m. alarm sounded. Dreary but rising interstate intersected with dawn and mountain highway where the sun broke through the clouds, revealing western homesteads nestled in fog-filled valleys. We drove in behind a dust-settling rain that released the pungent aroma of sage, freeing it to reach into the van to cleanse the air.
We were in the Tetons by ten. By eleven we had landed one of three remaining campsites at the heavily wooded Jenny Lake Campground, disappointing a van full of guys who hoped it would be theirs. We made camp, brunched facing Mount Moran, packed our gear and were on the trail by noon. By on the trail I mean on the boat which ferried us across Jenny Lake. We could have hiked around the lake. Usually we do. Today we hoarded our hours and our footsteps for the trail beyond.
I was lost from the moment we stepped off the boat.
I grew up in the middle of Iowa where the land is parceled into neat one mile squares wrapped with ribbons of asphalt and gravel. Even without a working knowledge of the four directions and a weak grasp on right and left, I could find my way. I drove by feel.
It worked. Then we moved. We live right now in Iowa’s southern third, where the gravel wears on for miles without paved interruption. It curves and follows deep rolling hills. No squares. No ribbons. I drive these roads with an unnerving sense of disorientation.
The approach to Hidden Falls from the boat landing is different than from the trailhead. I’d hiked down to the boat, but never up from it. What should have been easy–a climb up familiar stone steps too tall and irregular to meet the civilized code–felt wrong, leaving me to wander behind Dad and the other hikers and worry that were all on the wrong trail. I eyed the landscape for landmarks and mentally superimposed where I thought we were over where we actually were in an attempt to understand the trail.
When we arrived at Hidden Falls it was, according to the map in my mind, from the wrong direction. But there was the boulder field that my son had climbed years before. There were the falls, and the flat spot where we had seen the bear rooting out his lunch as hikers passed within feet of his perch, oblivious to his magnificent and potentially dangerous presence. Finally, I knew where we were.
It was here that the weight of the dangers of my navigational habits descended on me. I don’t just drive by feel. Sometimes it’s how I navigate my life. Every now and then I end up lost, superimposing where I want to be over where I actually am, and searching for landmarks that just aren’t there.
Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus and their great cadre of explorers navigated by the heavens and not by feel for a reason. In the face of mutiny and superstition, malnutrition and sickness, their feelings would have failed them. They would have been lost.
Feelings have their place. That place just isn’t for the navigation of a trail. Or the road. Or a life.
Not until after college did I fully master right and left. Only in the past few years have I learned how to reckon the cardinal directions. Now when I encounter those people who call on them like old friends and expect me to do the same, I can, in my awkward way. If those can be learned, so can a better way to navigate life.
My start is to pay more attention, to the trail, to the road, to my life, and understand where I am so that I can get to where I am supposed to be. I could learn from the explorers of old. Christopher Columbus wrote, “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” He knew where he was going and what he was following to get there. So do I. To explore my world, I move forward with my eyes toward He who does not change and leave my inadequate navigational habits behind.