Disorientation and the sensation of being lost are frequent experiences for serious hikers. One who has never wrestled with the panic of not knowing the way home is a tourist not a hiker.
Werner Heisenberg described lost-ness in his now-famous Uncertainty Principle which for those not well-versed in quantum mechanics states that we cannot determine both the position and the velocity of a particle simultaneously. Lost hikers know their velocity. “I have now doubled my pace, and though I have no idea where I’m going, I’m getting there quickly.”
As for position the lost hiker’s marching feet lead him in a large circle at best or deeper into the unknown forest at worst. Humans, for some reason, move faster when they are uncertain of the path to follow. Look around at the other drivers switching lanes during rush hour.
I embarked on a cross-country hike. With a crude map I pulled from a web site, two bottles of water and some Triscuits I left the marked trails behind on a search for an ancient homestead that belonged to a North Carolina governor during the War of Northern Aggression Civil War. Downed trees covered by scads of vines reduced visibility to a few yards. I wished for my trusty machete but as I was on state property I expected cutting a trail would be frowned upon.
I almost gave up the search several times but forged ahead, certain the brambles just over the next pile of logs were hiding a cabin. At last I stumbled upon a structure which appeared to be a tobacco barn, and that was my prompt to stroll deeper into the woods.
Next up was a double-wide two-story log cabin with a fallen pine tree resting on the roof. A red fox eyed me from an upstairs window then ambled down the trunk and disappeared into the woods. Safe hiking means taking no chances so I opted out of entering the structure. I mean seriously, my Momma raised me not to enter someone else’s house without an invitation, and the former owner has been pushing up daisies for about a hundred years.
Here’s some free advice – one should be careful poking around old home sites. Back then outhouses were all the rage and when the hole filled with you-know-what, the shanty was moved over a new hole. The old hole was often covered with boards and dirt and left to percolate. Years of rain-induced rot and hungry insects devour the wood, and an unsuspecting hiker can suddenly find the ground opening at his feet followed by a crash into a place no one wants to visit.
Turning in a circle I noted the woods were identical in every direction. North was uphill though, and my trip had been uphill every step so I crossed that direction off and headed southeast. Downhill must be the way home. Only in West Virginia can one hike uphill in both directions of a trek.
The consciousness of being misplaced in the woods sneaks up on a fellow. One minute the day is care-free and pleasant. The feet are happily crunching last fall’s leaves and the ears are basking in the songs of the twittering birds. The eyes are feeding signals to the brain which pushes the panic button. “Stop the feet. I have no images like these in my files. We have never been here before. WooBaah. WooBaah.”
The brain does not stop with ruining the hike. It generates a torrent of impassioned questions.
- “Will anyone ever find me?”
- “What if I have to spend the night out here? I didn’t bring any toilet paper.”
- “How long can a man live on a little bag of Triscuits?”
- “Who will tote Shawn’s twenty-seven boxes of Christmas decorations down from the attic next year?”
I’m getting wiser older and rather than embark on a frenzied stomp across the tundra, I leaned against a tree, sipped some water, and rested my aching knees. I surveyed the terrain. Downhill usually leads to a creek, and I had hiked in following a river. Sooner or later a creek vomits into a river. Find that river and it’s a couple of miles or so back to the truck.
After some fancy footwork on the descent I found a creek which is tagged hereafter as Poop Creek. Poop is supposed to flow downhill but the narrow valley was filled with standing water. Which way to the river? The scenario presented two possibilities, this-a-way or that-a-way. I chose this-a-way and just around the bend the standing water became a stream, eventually leading me on to the river and the path home.
If you find yourself lost in the woods and cannot find a creek to follow here are some of my favorite remedies.
- Pull out a deck of cards and start a game of Solitaire. Some goober will step up behind you to point out any moves you missed.
- Find a tree covered with moss. Face the sun and sit with your back against the trunk. Close your eyes and pretend to take a nap. A dog owned by someone who chose to ignore the ubiquitous “Pets must be on a leash” signs will slobber up and interrupt your rest. Wait for the owner to catch up and ask directions.
- Sing very loudly. My favorite number that I learned from my wife opens with amazing lyrics and echoes readily around the hills, “Well, I stuck my head in a little skunk’s hole…” It gets worse from there. Within fifty steps of belting out those notes you will encounter another hiker who regards you as an escapee from a looney bin. He will gladly tell you where to go, just to get you out of his airspace.
- Check your surroundings, step behind a tree, and make the bladder gladder. Before the flow reaches maximum a school group led by gray-haired Mrs. Berkowitz will appear around the bend forcing an abrupt halt to the process.
I am sure there are others ways to get un-lost, but these have worked for me. Now it’s your turn. Please use the comment facility to share your solution to being lost in the woods.