An Open Letter To Myself As I Brazenly Quit The Trail Last Week, Thinking I Was Taking A Shortcut Envisaged Through A Visionary Act Of Map-Reading, When In Fact I Was Going Drastically Off-Course

Dakota Jones narrates getting lost on his recent backcountry trip.

By on July 8, 2015 | 7 comments

Hey dumbass! Turn around. Turn around right now. Stop right there. Think about this. Seriously. Stop and think about what you’re doing. You’re making a huge mistake and you can stop right now if you take the time to sit down and give the map a closer look. I know you have looked at the map twice in the last half-hour. I know you think you know what you’re doing. You are right that this mountain to the north looks strikingly similar to the topography of the mountains northwest of Squaw Pass, but you need to remember what you yourself said just this morning to Paige–that the map you have is designed on such a huge scale that some details are obscured. Look dude–the map still has enough detail to show you the mistake you’re making, if you’ll just stop and really look at it. You don’t have to go over the top of this 13,000-foot peak and then along that high technical ridge and then way too far down the other side in the descending darkness compounded by two approaching storms. You don’t have to wait until you’re on the wrong side of these peaks, on a high plateau above treeline with lightning flashing all around, to realize the huge mistake you’re making right now. If that happens (okay, when that happens, at this rate) you will be forced to continue hiking in the wrong direction just to find the shelter of some dead trees for the night, and trust me–you’d much prefer to just avoid that situation entirely. Think about this, man–you hate going in the wrong direction. It’s bad enough to go in the wrong direction ignorantly, but to be forced to continue off-route while knowing the mistake you’ve made is just adding insult to injury. And you can stop this nonsense right now if you’ll just look at the map.

But nooooo. You’re too cool and confident to question your map-reading skills. You’re the John C. Fremont of ultrarunning. You’re mountain running’s Lewis and Clark fused into one prophetic medicine man of the landscape. You’re like the horse-whisperer, but with geography. You combine the technical knowledge of the whole USGS with the wit and dash of Daniel Craig’s 007. You’re a trailblazer in a land of mis-routed trails. I mean–who would think that the people who designed the Continental Divide Trail would use things like geography and forethought in their task? Surely those idiots just came up here and put in a trail wherever seemed easiest. Only you, Dakota, the guy who has never been here before, can really know what’s best for a trail in these mountains. Yeah dude, since you live in Durango you must know what you’re doing in all of the Weminuche, never mind the fact that Durango is a hundred miles away and completely out of the big mountains. You took an Outward Bound course eight years ago and you smugly tote USGS maps around the way a hipster drinks PBR. Yeah, you clearly have it all under control.

Look at you, walking along like you know what you’re doing. Oh, what’s that? A herd of elk on the mountain above you? Isn’t that pretty? Isn’t that natural? Yeah, you wouldn’t have seen that unless you came out to the middle of the wilderness on your own for two days. Think about all those poor bastards back in Silverton who think they’re experiencing the mountains when in fact they’re a bunch of fair-weather runners who would collapse in agony if they couldn’t take a shower and upload photos to Facebook every night. Yeah, smirk. You’re so much better than them. Of course, they aren’t lost right now. They aren’t justifying their rash decisions by putting other people down. But don’t think about that. Just look at those elk and keep hiking up that mountain the wrong direction and believing wholeheartedly in yourself. When was the last time you made a mistake? Oh, every single day? Surely that’s just a coincidence.

Since you’re not going to listen to me anyway, I may as well mention that if you had continued in the correct direction–like, if you continued on the trail built by professionals, remember that trail? the one that was a continuation of the perfectly designed and well-maintained trail you’ve been hiking all day long, and which you quit with hardly a second thought, assuming outside of all sense and reason that some vague turn had gone unmarked–you would now be heading south, west, and downhill, into that valley to your left. You’d be heading to Squaw Pass, which you’ve been calling “Squawp Ass” all day because that’s hilarious (why are you always a lot more funny alone?) and in all likelihood you would make it at least halfway to the next major landmark before throwing down that old sleeping pad and going to sleep. You’d wake up at 5:00 a.m. and keep hiking, just like you will anyway, but if you were smart enough to stay on course you’d have a roughly three-hour headstart tomorrow. You’d be back at the Gosney’s in Silverton drinking beer and talking shit with Mike Foote by 7:00 p.m. But instead, tonight you’re going to keep climbing that big peak that’s going to put you on the wrong side of everything and nearly make you stay out in the mountains for a bonus night at 12,000 feet. Smart man. Real cool. You know, you can stop this travesty at any moment by simply taking the time to consider that you might not be as smart as you think. But of course, that’s not how those things work.

Of course, if you were headed down to Squawp Ass, you wouldn’t have the vantage point of those western mountains that you have right now. You probably wouldn’t be able to see the distant outline of those steep rocky peaks thrown into quite so much contrast by the setting sun. You might not have the opportunity to reflect on the forgotten effect of the sunrise and sunset at high elevations–the way the light seems to fade completely with the sun’s disappearance, without darkening in a dusky post-sunset interval, because the idea of “dusk” in valleys is essentially the period between when the sun leaves the valleys and drifts up the peaks. You might not be able to watch the sun melt the western clouds into a molten golden color that splashes onto the peaks all around you, even the one you’re on, with a thick heavy oozing light. You might not have been able to observe the way the eastern sides of the mountains retreat not into a silhouetted black but instead seem to glow with a deep cold blue color, like they’re hunching down with their backs to the light, jealously guarding some secret. If you had used your freaking brain and stayed on course, you might not have had the opportunity to note that while the sun slowly drips down the western sky in colors your colorblind brain has no words for, the eastern sky is already wrapped fully in darkness, with bright needlepoints of starlight peering over the massing clouds. You wouldn’t have been able to see the storms to the east and north that are creating those menacing rumbles that keep shaking your very core with an imperceptible sense of doom. The clouds that in the darkness have shed the look of normal clouds and taken on the aspect of some sort of demonic threat incarnate, not so much a gathering storm but a complete absence approaching, the black edge of the world ripping away and disappearing into a deep void. You would miss the bright flashes of lightning that strike real fear into your heart, not because of the unpleasant prospect of being caught in a storm but because of something deeper, something from a long time ago that people have forgotten in our brazen passionate rush to build our own world on the ancient one. You would miss the way that deep gold from the west softens into a heavy amber color, a color that nearly stops your breath, not to kill you but to preserve you like a specimen, like the passing world’s desperate attempt to preserve its beauty as the abyss approaches. You might not have felt that for a moment you stood on the crest between the world’s extraordinary past and its unknown future, an errant observer to the universe’s indiscernible whim. You might have missed out on something important in a way you can feel but never understand.

But you also would still be on course and wouldn’t have to spend all of tomorrow cursing yourself for being such a slack-jawed numbnuts. If only you’d just look at the map again. But instead you’re going to keep looking at the world around you and feeling things you don’t have words for. I guess that’s something.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time you totally ignored instinct and forged your own path? How did it turn out for you?
  • Have you ever lost something and found that, by doing so, you gained something else?
Dakota Jones
explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.