Hiking in the Mountains on June 17
Several years ago, my family decided to return to New Mexico where we grew up and try to revisit sites we remembered from childhood. We rented a hostel for a week: it had two long bunkhouse rooms for the kids and private rooms for the adults. The cousins entertained us nightly with Terrace Entertainment–skits, jokes, and songs that they put together. During the day, we took excursions to local places.
It was June 17th, when we decided to hike in the mountains. The hike started at about 10,000 feet elevation and was planned as a four hour trip. Hiking were myself, my husband, my brother, and three kids. It started with an easy trail up to a placid lake, where we stopped and ate lunch. We skipped rocks and played because we had plenty of time. Finally, we decided to move on.
Moss hanging from trees decorated the path. At various muddy spots in the path someone had laid a series of short logs making a dry corduroy pathway. Soon, the trail led through a stand of pines. June 17th! Under the pines there was still snow, at least 8-10 inches deep. In places, my boot slid in so deep that slushy snow fell inside the tops of the boots.
It didn’t take us long to realize that something was wrong. We should have been near the end of the trail. Instead, we came to a pole stuck in the ground that baffled us. Apparently, the winter had been harsh and had knocked down trail signs, splintered pieces of wood that now lay near the pole. We tried hold up the signs and figure out which way was “down, off the mountain.” But it was impossible to tell. We were lost!
By now, the sky had turned very cloudy. We traipsed through more alpine meadows, full of bright yellow flowers, and up and over ridges, exclaiming over the porcupines and elk we saw, but growing increasingly worried. But we had no idea where we were and no idea how to get off the mountain.
Suddenly–June 17th–it started to hail!
We were dressed for hiking in just shorts and T-shirts. I did have a sweater, but my ten year old daughter claimed it. Among everyone there, only my husband, had thought to bring a small pack with emergency supplies. He pulled out one red plastic poncho and we all huddled beneath the meager shelter. Within a few minutes, hailstones the size of grapes had covered the ground with a white blanket.
I never thought it was possible, but we could not tell directions at all. The cloud cover diffused the light so much you couldn’t tell where the sun was. When the hail stopped, we struggled onward, hoping he trail we were following would eventually lead down. We passed through more meadows where the ground was so wet that you could stand on it and bounce, like it was a spongy trampoline. Streams ran through the valley here. One in particular was only one or two feet wide, but when we thrust a stick into the frigid water, we found it was probably 8-10 feet deep. It was narrow enough to step across easily, but deep enough in places to drown you if you mis-stepped.
It hailed again: we huddled under the red plastic poncho, trying to make sure everyone stayed fairly dry and didn’t get hit with the hailstones.
My daughter and her cousin were convinced that we would die on top of that mountain. I knew we’d get off the mountain, but I was afraid we would have to spend the night.
Now–if you’ve done much hiking, you’ve already been asking yourself this. There are two things we could have taken that would have helped us at this point. Can you think what those two things might be?
Yes, a map. My brother — a physicist, one of the most intelligent people I know — had a map. He left it in his van.
And, yes, a compass. We had a compass, but had left it back home in Arkansas.
How could we Find our way home? Or, to put in in more general terms, how do we Find our way around?
It’s a question that I found fascinating and was partly the inspiration for writing THE WAYFINDER, my YA novel featured on Book View Cafe. In my story, “wayfinding” is a special skill you either have or don’t have. If you do have the skill, then it can be developed and trained until the Finder is capable of finding anything. To quote from my book: “The Finder’s Guild was expert at Finding anything and everything: lost rings, the prettiest blue dress in the market, a lost child, the way home.”
Alternate Ways of Finding Your Way
McVey (The Wayfinding Book, Sierra Club) talks about two groups of people who do not use the compass points of north, south, east and west. The Yurok Indians of northern California are fishing people. “They get almost all of their food from the Klamath River, which flows right through the middle of their land. They also depend on the river for transportation: if they need to go someplace, the river takes them. But since they spend all their time either on the river or next to it, they only need to go two directions: upstream or downstream.” (P. 10)
In The Wayfinder, you put your hand on a Wayfinder’s face and just think about where you want to go, or what you want them to Find. They get an image and then, a Finding. After that, there are only two directions: toward a Finding or away from a Finding.
I didn’t have a map or a compass that day in the mountains. Somehow, we lucked onto the right trail and made it to a point where we could see the valley below us. We knew the cars were parked just below us–maybe another mile or so, thirty minutes at the most. We were safe. I picked up some granite stones and handed to the kids: “Always remember that you can endure anything. You’re as hard as that granite.”
A year later, I started inventing the story of The Wayfinder. And I found that no matter how hard things got for Winchal Eldras, the Wayfinder of the story, he was as hard as granite.