What were you following?
The words are delivered just a little north of dispassionately, just a tad too intensely to indicate mere enquiry. No, something more is afoot, in more than one sense, as we make our careful way back down the trail. The Big Guy isn’t a Big Reactor, but I have managed to generate a decent reaction with my evident surprise, artlessly expressed just a minute before.
Oh, look, there are blue marks on the trees.
I don’t think I’m imagining that slight OMG! edge to his tone. Indeed, the slight pause that preceded his question now seems, in retrospect, almost alarmed. The only thing saving it from the full ‘three-alarm fire’ condition, I guess, is that at the point of disclosure we are past any possible point of danger.
On this beautiful autumn day in October 2010, just past the peak of leaf-peeping season, we are working our way back down the Appalachian Trail, on a stretch coinciding with the Long Trail — a twofer for two not very accomplished/ambitious hikers. Our plan was just to taste both trails on this swing through Vermont: up the hill for half an hour or so, then back down. That’s it. What could possibly go wrong?
On terrain with an elevation gain, I gain elevation a little faster than the Big Guy, so I had led the way up the hill. Full of gnarly tree roots and toe-stubbing rocks, the trail was more tripping hazard than groomed path.
That, I could deal with. What disturbed me a bit was that in many places I lost sight of the trail altogether, unable to distinguish it with certainty from the surrounding terrain.
Having temporarily wandered off supposedly well-marked desert hiking trails, I was fully aware that one missed turn could lead to mucho confusion in no time at all. So on this ungroomed trail, when I couldn’t see where to put my next foot — or my foot, next — I looked further ahead to see if the long-range view offered any hints, if the trail would be more obvious on a longer scale. And so I made my way up and along the hill, the Big Guy trailing slightly.
My method worked fine, measured by outcomes: we eventually came to a signed crossroads where we stopped to catch our breath, admire our accomplishment, and agree that we had accomplished enough. It was only on the way back down the hill that I was busted.
Oh look, there are blue marks on the trees.
From this angle, it is clear to me that they are trail markers. From this comment, it is clear to the Big Guy that I had not been following said trail markers. What the heck, then, had I been following?
My nose, was not going to be a happy answer, and it wasn’t even true, not really. Truly, I had been following my intuition about the trail — my best guess about its path. When I couldn’t see the trail in the foreground, I looked ahead: so far, so good. With no thought that the trail would be marked, what I did not do was look up.
As we make our way back to the trailhead, we don’t talk much. The Big Guy may be reflecting on his narrow escape from death-by-exposure on a colourful Vermont hillside. I am reflecting on how not knowing what you don’t know makes it tough to even think to look or ask for help.