Toilet paper and trowel. . . check. Sleeping bag, sleeping pad. . . check. Rain gear, flashlight, emergency blankets. . . check, check, check. Whistles and mini-blast air horn (couldn’t hurt) for warding off bears. . . check and double check. Berta, Debbie and I were sorting through camping gear strewn across Berta’s otherwise elegant dining room, preparing for a three-day backpacking trip. Nalgene bottles. . . check. Compass. . . check. “Hey, anybody know how to use one of these?” I asked holding the quivering arrow in its round housing. “I used to, ages ago.”
Berta and Debbie looked up and silently answered with blank “not me” stares.
“We’ll be alright. Richard says it’s impossible to get lost there,” Berta said, referring to the corner of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest that her cousin had suggested for our girls-only adventure. The location had plenty of water, good camping, cell phone coverage, and, according to Richard, was easily traversed. We shrugged off the bit about it being a bear sanctuary.
We were looking for rugged-lite, as Debbie and I were taking our two 14-year-old daughters — novice campers and best friends who were crossing over into the treacherous wilds of high school — for some backwoods bonding. We’d asked Berta, as Wise Woodsy Woman and experienced backpacker, to come along for moral support and to serve as combo sherpa, den mother, and relentless pace setter. She picked up the compass and studied it, unintimidated.
“Hey, Luke,” she called to her son and resident Boy Scout, “come give us a quickie on compass use.” After our two-minute orienteering 101 — “Ah, line up red arrow in the red housing… OK, got it” — we stashed the compasses in our packs and turned our focus on really important things, like packing sufficient toilet paper and doing serious math to determine how many granola and fiber bars we would need to keep five girls-gone-wild energized, and three middle-aged digestive systems regular. We packed 60. At least.
After two nights of gear-sorting and double-checking checklists, we were ready to hit the trail, our backpacks bulging with the bare essentials and an extra 40-some pounds each of just-in-case “necessities.” We could have kept the crew of LOST alive for another television season. We’re moms, and we did what moms do: we gathered, we packed, we overpacked. And we blindly trusted and assumed that other minor details, like trail markings, would be apparent once we got there. None of us seemed terribly concerned that several Internet postings claimed that the trails at our destination were notoriously confusing. We had Richard’s assurances, after all, and a photocopied hand-drawn map of the region. How hard could it be?
We drove to the trailhead with the help of Debbie’s omniscient new minivan GPS (“Turn right. Turn right. Make a U-turn immediately,” it droned), ditched the car, then hiked a few miles in, munching fiber bars and groaning under our packs. After setting up camp in a pine clearing, hoisting 45 pounds of granola bars high in a tree, out of bears’ reach, we studied the map to chart our day hikes, aiming to cover most of the valley and find three waterfalls. Instead, we spent the next two days shaking our heads.
The map was terrible — neither drawn to scale nor an accurate rendering of the complex nexus of side trails. There were no blazes or physical markings to give ground clues. Even when we happened upon hikers more familiar with the area who told us to take such-and-such right or left to find a certain waterfall, we missed it.
“Are we lost?” our daughters asked, rolling their eyes at their incompetent moms. A six mile slog brought us to the National Forest boundary, a road not even on our map, and we had to turn around and backtrack, making it an exhausting 12 mile hike to nowhere — no inspiring vistas, no scenic overlooks, just bramble thickets with a few small, tart blackberries as our only reward. “No, we’re not lost,” I replied. “We just don’t exactly know where we are.” Which was true. We weren’t lost, we could backtrack and be okay, but we weren’t where we thought we were, or where we wanted to be. Nor could we figure out, with our lame map and our even lamer compass skills, how to get there.
The trails were obscure but the irony was obvious. This trip was to be a back-to-nature adventure, a wholesome opportunity to bolster our teenaged daughters’ confidence and self-reliance out in the wilderness. And here we were, their not-so-fearless leaders, three moms bumbling through the woods, clueless about our own path. Each time I pulled out the worn topo map, I felt like a fortune teller trying to divine some direction from the minuscule contour lines, like palm etchings, if only I could get my bearings. We couldn’t trust the map. We didn’t know enough about taking compass readings, and given our proximity to some major power lines, we couldn’t even assume the magnetic needle was pointing true north.
In the end, thanks to sheer luck and Berta’s sensible intuition, we managed, eventually, to find two of three waterfalls, no bears, and one breathtaking (literally) rattlesnake. On our last day, some heavily tattooed locals rescued us from yet another wrong turn and escorted us back to a trailhead. Exhausted and relieved, we returned to our campsite, packed up, polished off a few more granola bars, then hiked out, our pace quickening as we neared the minivan with its glorious electronic GPS.
I’d hoped our trek might help my daughter boldly chart her course as a young woman, that she’d take from it some Thoreauvian revelation: that we’d “go to the woods. . . to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if (we) could not learn what it had to teach.” What it taught us, however, was less about finding our way than about how to be lost. An essential existential lesson, to be sure, especially for urbanites more accustomed to highways and road signs than wilderness trails. But I’m still going to polish up my compass skills.