I am really lucky to have a lot of gregarious, interesting friends in my life. Sometimes they say, “Take me with you on one of your off-trail adventures.” Some of my friends have come with me and we have a lot of fun, but they are few who really understand whats involved. Any and all of the following are possible when you are traveling cross-country instead of on an established trail: loose soil on slippery steep hillsides, fields of tightly packed cactus, brush choked chaparral, no shade, boulder fields, dry slick waterfalls, heat, indeterminate distance, and more, of course. Then there are the injuries. I’m always falling down, slipping off things, tumbling, getting stabbed by bushes and cactus, scraping the palms of my hands, turning ankles, getting scratched across the face, I drop and break cameras… As long as I can keep moving, I don’t consider these “injuries”. They are just part of negotiating the terrain, like getting wet when you swim.
Here’s a little example of what off-trail hiking can be like.
The question I get the most when taking someone on an exploration to discover hidden archaeology is this, “Where is it?” or “How far is it?” Sometimes before we go they ask, “What will the trail be like?” Those questions crack me up every time because the obvious answer to all of those questions is “I can’t possibly know the answer. This is what we’re doing, exploring!” At that moment I also panic because I realize the person I’ve brought with me has absolutely no idea what they are about to experience. In our day-to-day lives, if you want something, we go to where we can find it. There is very little “discovery” in our day-to-day lives. So even though people intellectually know we are looking for something unknown, that we don’t know where it is or if it even exists, they still feel compelled to ask the question, sometimes over and over again while we are hiking, “Where is it?” Its such a funny study of human nature.
When exploring the wilderness you don’t always reach what you might consider a “destination”. Sometimes you are hoping for something, but it may not manifest for you in the few hours you’ve set aside to look for it. Sometimes you just have to be satisfied with the experience of looking.
When I’m out exploring and I don’t find what I’m looking for easily, my little addictive tendencies switch on. This is what turns an intended 3 hour tour into an exhausting sun-up to sun-down expedition that I’m ill prepared for. Sometimes I run out of water and all I have to eat in my pack is a fun size packet of M&M’s. But food isn’t the fuel I care about. The fuel is the adrenaline rush of the chase. The exploration itself is the food that feeds the hunger inside me.
I come away from day-long explorations wishing that I had brought my sleeping bag because I don’t want to stop. I start to feel the land and want to go further and further. I want see what’s over the next hill and around the next corner, on and on. My greatest fantasy is to have the time to get lost in the wilderness and spend day after day traveling further and further until I understand the whole landscape and know it like my home. After a whole day, it starts to feel like home. I feel like I recognize the smells and I want the luxury of experiencing the rhythm of the days, day after day. Someday I will do this and live like a real human animal again.
They say it doesn’t matter what you DO in life, it matters how much you refine your soul. That the purpose of life is to raise up humanity by improving yourself. When this is the goal, how could you possibly visualize an endpoint? How can you know what the path will be or what the terrain will be like? You will get injured and frustrated. You will definitely not always get what you think you want. If you need to be reminded of how sweet and exhilarating life should be, even though you don’t know what will be at the end of the trail, spend an afternoon bushwhacking up a hillside to top out at a peak with a view. Feel the rush of that simple reward after hours of sweat and tears. Everyday we go bushwhacking through life. Just embrace it and laugh at how ridiculously difficult the terrain is. That’s the good stuff. That’s what makes the exploration challenging and fun! You gotta learn to let go.