“The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.” —Rebecca Solnit
The moment I returned to my senses, I was holding myself by the branch of a slender tree over a small creek, toes stretching to gain purchase on the bank before the branch gave way and I went tumbling, full backpack and all, onto the slick rocks in the water that disappeared a little ways beyond down the steep slope. The brambles through which I’d been bashing these last few moments before my failed jump could be seen poking across in places, and I wondered, if I dropped and went sliding down the water, how likely I was to be stabbed in the face by a thorn or a stick. Craning my neck about to assess the situation, I noticed for the first time that both my arms and legs were bleeding.
The blood was a reality check. “Meg, stop being stupid,” I told myself—out loud, to get the point across. With a deep breath I gathered the strength to pull my body and overstuffed pack up to the edge of the bank, and despite any real room, squished myself into a cobwebby nook within a crammed little stand of subalpine fir. I sat there, caught my breath, and at long last, took out a protein bar and ate it, all while swatting at flies, wiping cobweb strands and sweat off my face, inspecting my various scrapes and scratches, and swearing at myself for not having stopped, some thirty minutes earlier, to do just this: eat a snack.
It’s my golden rule of hiking, and I had broken it. When things are going badly, and you’re hot and tired and likely to make a brash decision: Stop And Eat A Snack. I had even reminded myself of this—before promptly ignoring my own good advice—the moment I realized that the trail I had been following was not in fact the trail, but a series of paths made by other hikers who had also managed to stumble off course at about the same place. It was July and I was on the Pacific Crest Trail in the North Cascades; the snowmelt had come early this year, and as a result a riot of green growth and blossoms had taken over even sooner than usual. Some might derisively refer to the PCT as a “highway for hikers,” but the appellation fit poorly on this stretch, where hiking more closely resembled full-out bushwhacking. Clearly many of us had been following someone’s prior trampling effort, and ending up in a bit of woods full of downed logs before making a decision to re-route. Others, ostensibly, had found their way back to the official path, but I had decided that I would just “simplify” things and continue my cross-country ramble. The trail, I knew, curved around into a bit of a bowl and then switchbacked down a ways to intersect with the upcoming creek; I would just make that same curve, from further below, and head down to the water and follow it back to where it met the PCT.
Following water is not a particularly bad strategy, especially if one is actually lost; a stream can help cut a clearing through a forest, and it will often intersect with a trail—even if it’s not the specific trail you want, such crossings are reliable places for people to gather, improving the chance of finding aid. Whatever else happens, you won’t lack for water. This was the bit of knowledge I repeated in my head to soothe my bruised ego as I ate my protein bar and considered my position.
How had I landed myself here, uncomfortably crouching at the edge of a ditch? As I had rushed off in the direction I thought correct, which included a bit of angling downhill, I found the slope to be both more steep than it appeared at first glance and more overgrown with corn lilies, their smooth leaves wet after a recent rain. My boots, despite my boasting of their exceptional traction on prior trips, were these days so worn down that they were no match for those slippery leaves, and simply “stepping around them” proved impossible. As a result I had, to my knowledge, just invented the sport of lily glissading: after falling flat on my backside not just once, or twice—not even just three times—I had given up, sat down, and with a shove, sent myself sliding down the mountain.
That was the easy part. Down I slid—much further down than intended—until the slope eased up a little and bits of trees and brush got in my way. Standing up again, I had begun to trudge across a flattish area, only to find a new conundrum: while there were only a few creeks marked on the map, this damp basin had dozens of seeps and streams merging and separating and merging again before they rolled further down the hillside into a valley below. Which one should I head up? I eyeballed my position relative to the scoured rock shaping the bowl above, and decided to aim for the middle of the basin. Thus began my stream-hopping. The first few were simple affairs, but the little canyons they cut in the mountainside grew deeper as I progressed. I had, in fact, paused before the last hop, a little uncertain if I would make it. Thank goodness for that tree.
I patted the abused conifer in a gesture of thanks and contemplated what to do next.
Fellow PCT hikers will surely be scratching their heads at this point, wondering why on earth, during any of this bashing and falling about, I didn’t use the most obvious tool available, and simply whip out my phone. “Why didn’t you use Guthook?” they—or you—might well ask. But for many years, I refused to use the most popular app for navigation on that particular long-distance trail.1 I had managed to hike over half of it Guthook-free, and didn’t see any reason to pay for an additional tool. Which isn’t to say I didn’t have at least one free GPS app on my phone. It was true: at any moment in time, I could have opened it up and waited for that comforting blue dot to appear and tell me where I was in relationship to the path I wanted to be on. Halfway into this particular ten-day trek, though, and I had yet to use it once, even though I had already made several (intentional) side excursions up various waterways. Bleeding limbs or no, I didn’t really want to start using it now.
Avoiding my phone was part of an attempt to keep my orienteering skills somewhat sharpened, to prove to myself that I did indeed know how to move about in the mountains without any high-tech aid. For the very practical purpose that one may occasionally need to do so, involuntarily: phones break, apps stall, and sometimes that blue dot is less than accurate. I could tell my old skills, earned through time in scouting, practice in the field, and occasional refresher courses, were eroding now that I routinely carried my phone into the backcountry. My goal for the trip, then, was to do it without resorting to any app.
In setting that goal, however, I had apparently forgotten how navigating by other methods often results in small little excursions of lostness. When one is certain about one’s location and route, there is no need to navigate; you don’t check the map and scan the horizon when stepping out the door to head to the corner store down the block. By its very nature, then, to navigate is to open up the possibility that one might already be lost, is to make one’s location a question rather than a settled matter. To find one’s way off trail is thus in some ways a toggling between the realm of certainty and uncertainty. Yes, this way! Followed quickly by, Hold up—maybe not? Let me see the map again. It’s to question the map and your reading of it, your eyes and the reading of the landscape.
The very need for navigation proves unsettling to many, who opt for introducing something that makes them feel more safe, more certain, in their whereabouts—that little blue dot or a Siri-like voice providing direction. Yet to skip over that void of uncertainty is to blunder past one of the greatest opportunities for genuinely knowing the place one is in. That pause, that moment of sitting in your potential unknowing while striving to better understand your placement within the world around you: that is a moment of true relating, of connecting, much less feasible when one’s face is darting between phone screen and built trail and focused on simply getting to the next landmark.
Disorientation, in many ways, is what allows for looking at the world around us with fresh eyes, reviewing our assumptions about the land on which we travel and our relationship to it. Getting lost might not be a problem—it might even be the point. How little I understood all which this particular North Cascades basin contained, the texture of its many tiny living beings, before I tumbled into its depths. This may have been an act of disorientation caused unwittingly by a blood sugar crash, but the cause did not lessen the impact of the result, my moment of coming-to and seeing more carefully my own small being in that pocket of the mountainside.
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The idea that we ought to give ourselves opportunities to get lost will not be new to fans of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. In the opening chapter, she writes about disorientation in the backcountry, and how it differed in earlier centuries:
Nineteenth-century Americans seldom seem to have gotten lost as disastrously as the strays and corpses picked up by search-and-rescue teams. I went looking for their tales of being lost and found that being off course for a day or a week wasn’t a disaster for those who didn’t keep a tight schedule, knew how to live off the land, how to track, how to navigate by heavenly bodies, waterways, and word-of-mouth in those places before they were mapped. “I never was lost in the woods in my whole life,” said Daniel Boone, “though once I was confused for three days.” For Boone the distinction is a legitimate one, since he could eventually get himself back to where he knew where he was and knew what to do betweentimes.
Of course, many were not lost because they had guides; Solnit notes, for instance, the famed role of Sacajawea in the Lewis and Clark expedition. Yet her research changes Solnit’s perception of what it means to be lost:
Lost, these people I talked to helped me understand, was mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry. …
[The historian Aaron] Sachs sent me a chunk of Thoreau, for whom navigating life and wilderness and meaning are the same art, and who slips subtly from one to the other in the course of a sentence. “It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable, experience to be lost in the woods any time,” he wrote in Walden. “Not till we are completely lost, or turned round,—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Thoreau is playing with the biblical question about what it profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul. Lose the whole world, he asserts, get lost in it, and find your soul.
I never have managed to read Walden all the way through myself—it’s on a list of masculine tales of adventure or self-reliance, including Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, that I find tedious and have chosen to unapologetically abandon after giving each a few tries—but nonetheless Thoreau’s sentiment is surely what I have felt each time I have gotten turned about in the woods. Though I will maintain, like Boone, that often times I’ve simply been confused, not lost. Whatever you wish to call it, the effect is the same. I stop rushing past (or sliding straight over) the many other beings around me, and begin to see them again for the first time.
It’s the lack of seeing, of relating, that had me most dubious about relying on my phone for navigation. I had seen extreme versions of that reliance in encounters with other hikers. On a similar PCT section hike two years prior, about a hundred miles or so south, I had stopped to eat lunch on the steps of a cabin overlooking a grassy meadow. It’s a popular break spot, and there were a number of other hikers milling about. As I walked toward the cabin steps I passed a young woman leaving, her face glued to her phone. “Are you looking for the PCT? It’s right over there,” I told her, motioning to the piece of trail from which I had just come, a winding bit of dirt visible through the trees. “That’s okay, I’m just waiting for my Guthook to tell me where it is,” she said. “But it’s right there,” I said again, pointing. “You can see it. If you’re heading north you just go that way.” “Uh-huh,” she muttered, now ignoring me. As I took my pack off I watched her first step one way, then another, half circling the cabin, nearly running into a tree with her eyes on the phone the entire time, until she finally understood which way the app was telling her to go. She stepped on the patch of dirt to which I had been pointing and headed off.
A few weeks ago, I asked if maps themselves were a tool too embedded in the colonial enterprise to be of use in our efforts to reshape our ideas about land and property, using Audre Lorde’s thinking about “the master’s tools” as a framework for considering how to answer that question. I tentatively concluded that
Forced homogeneity is the master’s real tool. Which gives us a clue as to what kind of geographic maps might be more or less useful in aiding us to change our relationship to land. Does it allow for the different, for variation, for the outright weird? Does it allow for different kinds of people as well as different kinds of places?
We can use this same set of questions to allow us to think about the tool of GPS navigation, or our own deployment of that tool, and its impact upon our understanding of the lands on which we live and move through. My own experience—both from personal use and from observations of others—is that GPS aids in the flattening, the homogenizing, of the experience of place. It is navigation by an abstraction. Even more so than a topographical map, which requires that active practice of staring at a map and staring at the land before you and checking and double-checking the relationship, GPS weds you to the abstraction, to a set of points in a gpx file as the ‘right’ journey. It’s a mode of traveling focused on certainty, without having to do so much as calculate distances on your own. When it comes to backpacking, many a specialized app will tell you how much further you have to hike to the next campsite, the next water source, the next junction. It suggests no need to look, to learn to read the land for signs of water. That in turn homogenizes our experiences; there is no searching about for campsites, using your own preferences (near or far to trail, shaded or no, visible or not). Indeed, some campsites have become so overused as a result of the new set of hiking apps that trail associations have asked app developers to cease including info about them.
There is also an implicit emphasis, especially as the more detailed apps for individual long-distance trails come out, on completing in full a specific, single trail. The completion, the athletic achievement, gets substituted for the process of exploring and knowing a place. I have been mocked by thru-hikers on long-distance trails for my slower approach (I stroll more than I hike, and I’m generally content to cover less ground should a good swimming hole present itself). I’ve received snide remarks even on my longer treks.2 I’ve learned to shrug off such comments, especially after experiencing first-hand the dangers of this overemphasis on “the trail.” It’s an approach that encourages a limited knowledge of the terrain, and indeed, many of these hiking apps, or the maps of the trail itself, show very little of the surrounding territory, expecting that you will stay predominately on “the trail” at hand. At the end of my 2015 PCT adventure, I was stuck in a snowstorm for two nights, unable to go forward because of dangerous conditions on a stretch of trail known as the Knife’s Edge. Given the narrow focus of my maps, I thought my only option was to return back south another 60 miles, which was risky given how low my food supply was. More detailed knowledge of the terrain—and access to maps not focused on my trail but on the region—would have presented me with more options. As I later learned, I could have walked down to one of the more popular weekend backpacking spots for the Goat Rocks, and likely gotten an easy ride to shelter and food.
One does not have to use GPS in this constricting, dependent fashion. Nonetheless, it is how many of us, at present, do. How is this changing our conception of the land? In what ways are we exchanging a sense of security for deeper connection? Is it possible that there’s a different way to go about this, tools for finding our way that create new avenues for knowing and relating, more space for multiplicity and difference, less forced homogeneity? What if the aim is not to use any tool or map at all? As Gary Snyder writes in his classic book The Practice of the Wild, intertwining the following of a spiritual path and the hiking of a trail:
I would say the real play is in the act of going totally off the trail — away from any trace of human or animal regularity aimed at some practical or spiritual purpose. One goes out onto the “trail that cannot be followed” which leads everywhere and nowhere, a limitless fabric of possibilities, elegant variations a millionfold on the same themes, yet each point unique. Every boulder on a talus slope is different, no two needles on a fir tree are identical. How could one part be more central, more important, than any other? One will never come onto the three-foot-high heaped-up nest of a Bushy-tailed Woodrat, made of twigs and stones and leaves, unless one plunges into the manzanita thickets.
I’ve been talking in terms of trails, but the same is true of our navigation in urban areas and other places where the built environment takes center stage. We pass by whole neighborhoods, entire ways of living and entire networks of relationships, without ever so much as catching a glimpse, by getting in a car and following the Google Maps instructions to get on the interstate. We talk about cities as though we know them, and yet we’ve never even seen them.
The New York Times recently profiled the first person to complete the Trans Canada Trail, filmmaker Dianne Whelan. Whelan wrote about the hope of maintaining the advantages of technologies like GPS while countering or pairing it with other forms of knowing. Asked, “How does this journey compare to other extreme adventures you’ve done,” Whelan responded:
They are all about the infusion of traditional Indigenous wisdom with science and technology to take people through danger to safety. What’s great about science and technology is, yes, we have these amazing satellite phones and GPSs and high-tech stuff. But when you’re like 200 miles from the North Pole and you hit a hurricane and it’s minus 80 out, all that technology stops working and at that point it’s the wisdom of the elders that keeps you alive — because it’s their understanding and relationship to the land and their experience that has been passed on to them through multiple generations. Everest was the exact same thing: Very few get up that mountain without a Sherpa. I have great hope that if we blend traditional Indigenous wisdom with science and technology that we can find sustainable ways to live with the Earth and all life on the Earth.
Despite a fair number of personal misgivings on the matter, I do share some of this hope. I went out on a limb this year and acquired a GPS watch, thinking I might gain some of the advantages of the basics of GPS (it did save me quite a bit of time refinding the trail back in the Cascades, for what it’s worth) while still avoiding any chance of turning into one of those folks with my face welded to a screen while walking through the forest. So far my experiment seems promising. But when it comes to combining new technology and traditional wisdom, in our consumerist society, acquiring the tech is the easy part. The real test comes now—how will I match this with less consumerist forms of knowing, and continue building relationships both with the many plant and animal relatives out on trail, and with respect for the peoples and stewards of each place that I travel? The experimentation on that front will likely last the rest of my life, and there are sure to be moments where I get lost along the way.
From my vantage point—both down in that ditch. and now far on the other side of that journey, comfortable at a desk at home—there is no getting out of the need for the experience that Snyder and Solnit both point to. We have to go off trail sometimes, get a little lost, a little unsettled, to ever really know the world and our place within it. We need likewise to pay attention to the ways in which the tools we use to move about a place interfere with our relationship to it, and with our ability to get lost in that place. Without a little bit of being lost, we miss many of our chances to take routes we never knew existed. Getting lost is a way through our fear that the world is too large to a joyful relation with just how big it is. Thoreau understood: “Not till we are lost… do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
I set out to hike about half the trail in 2015 with the intent of relying only on my maps; I downloaded Halfmile, Guthook’s predecessor, a few days before my hike, somewhat skeptical but figuring why not? I was trusting Halfmile’s maps to get me there anyhow. Halfmile and Guthook, for the uninitiated, are the trail names for their respective creators. I still have not used Guthook on the PCT proper, but finally tried it out when I hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2020, and portions of the Arizona Scenic Trail earlier this spring, though always paired with an additional source providing topo maps for the entire region, not just focused on the trail itself.
In the world of long distance hikers I am probably best described as a routine Lasher (short for Long-Ass Section Hiker). The average section of trail is 90 or so miles in length; I prefer to string multiple sections together if I can swing it.