Sea of Troubles

On Being Lost

Last weekend, I walked the Gibberagong Track. It’s a lovely hike, starting in the back-blocks of Wahroonga: a firetrail along a ridge, then switchbacks down a spur, and then a couple of kilometers of winding path running parallel to a large creek. The track was generally well worn, with a few rough patches, occasional boulders to clamber over, and smaller creeks to cross.

At one point, the path took a sharp left turn downhill toward the creek. Upon reaching the creek, the path was no longer clear. It ended in a curve of rock extending a couple of meters in each direction, and soft wetland near that. I knew from the map that the trail headed north and didn’t cross the creek, so kept moving in that direction. On the other side of the wet ground, there still wasn’t an obvious path, but a few clear trails, so I pressed on.

A few minutes later, it started to become clear that this wasn’t the track. Starting to worry, I remembered Bob Cooper’s advice and sat down on the nearest rock and took a break: ate a snack, drank some water, cleaned my sunglasses, checked the map again. Since this wasn’t the path, I’d track back to the soft ground and strike out again, closer to the river.

This new direction quickly proved fruitless. After about ten more minutes, I was starting to panic. I was clearly off the trail. Oddly, I kept moving forward. I’m not sure why; perhaps I thought that if I kept moving I would find it.

During this time, something interesting and strange was going on in my head. My instincts were screaming the textbook answer: go back to the known trail and re-evaluate. Yet, I pressed on. I think I was afraid that I was permanently lost, and that moving felt like I was doing something about it. I found myself covering up that fear by insisting that I just didn’t want to be late for the people picking me up at the end, and I had no mobile phone reception to warn them, so I couldn’t afford to back-track and lose time. Layered on top of that was overconfidence, grounded in my equipment and my training. I had, after all, a good map, a compass, a GPS receiver, and equipment that would allow me to survive (albeit uncomfortably) most of a week in the wild without great difficulty. I was even carrying water purification tablets.

Finally, embarrassingly far down the wrong path, the gut instinct won out. I said “This is not the path” a couple of times out loud, and stopped. And turned around, heading back. About fifteen minutes later, I was back at the point I had arrived at the creek, and I climbed back up to the point where the trail turned down. From here, I had a little mobile reception, so called my wife to tell her I’d be arriving late and why.

From the higher vantage point required to get signal, I could see glimpses of the right path between the trees; rather than turning left, it continued straight ahead, but the next few metres were obscured by some particularly large boulders over which one climbed, which is why I’d missed it the first time. Heartened, I jumped the rocks and charged down the right track. I was quickly glad that I hadn’t simply forged a path forward in the scrub; in a couple of places, that tactic would have required either swimming or serious rock-climbing, neither of which I was remotely prepared for.

In all, I ended up making up much of the lost time and arrived roughly on time.

It’s fading quickly, and seems all a bit surreal now. In all, I was off the trail less than an hour and never in any great danger, even in the short term. Despite this, my emotional response was totally disproportionate, which I’m surprised by. I’m very irritated that it took me so long to back-track to the trail.

The rationalisation process is also interesting to contemplate; where else in my life am I rationalising the wrong path, despite gut instinct to the contrary?

What role did preparation and experience have in driving me down the wrong path? Perhaps, if I hadn’t invested in map familiarity, and didn’t know how to use my compass and GPS, I might have given up and turned back earlier. It brought back the Zen idea of Beginner’s Mind, of the need to challenge one’s assumed knowledge and recapture a sense of curious inexperience.

All up, everything’s okay, but I’m still chewing on the lessons I should take out of this, and how to both prepare better and respond more appropriately to adversity.