Story last updated at 10/14/2009 - 1:36 pm
I attempted to hike the Fish Creek trail on a rainy fall evening recently when more sensible people might have just gone home after work. It was supposed to be a weather challenge for me, to prove to myself that hiking in the cold rain could be just as fun as hiking in the warm sun.
Maybe it is. But that wasn't my lesson along Fish Creek. My challenge on that trail ended up having nothing to do with the weather.
The first hint that the Fish Creek trail might not be easy to hike came during a quick office survey in which five consecutive people told me that no, they hadn't hiked the trail before, and where was it even?
I'm still not entirely sure. The trailhead wasn't well marked, so I made my best guess, starting off on what appeared to be a trail following the creek. It was 90 minutes before sunset, and the rain made the sky prematurely dark.
The area along Fish Creek was full of berry bushes, with quite a few blueberries still holding on. Devil's club bushes crowded the little path. It seemed like an ideal place to run into a bear. At least it was easy to make a lot of noise as my rain pants rustled against the bushes.
What started out as a reasonable-looking trail quickly became more and more overgrown. I kept thinking I'd lost it for good, only to see the trail open ever so slightly up again, urging me to continue.
The trail opened up to some nice views of the creek, but it seemed best to focus on the trail itself, to avoid tripping on roots or getting pricked by the persistent devil's club. I've followed animal trails before thinking they were the man-made trails I was looking for. Yet this time I kept finding myself on trails that wouldn't seem to accommodate much more than a squirrel.
How many times can you get lost and then find your way again? At what point are you lost for good?
After 40 minutes of just managing to find something resembling a trail at every moment of doubt, I found myself with no trail to be found and no urge to keep looking. And I threw in the towel. I was finally, irrevocably lost, I decided.
Or was I? In one sense, the creek gave me a very clear bearing at every turn. I always knew I could follow the creek back to the bridge where I started.
I didn't need a trail, and yet I was frustrated that I had lost the trail I thought I was on. So I turned around and, following the creek, made it back, sometimes on what resembled a trail, sometimes not.
Is getting lost a good thing? It depends. We use the word metaphorically in most positive ways - "I got lost in the pages of the book" - and negative ways - "Get lost!"
The real question is do you want to be lost? Being lost in the positive sense is similar to exploring. When you're exploring, you don't know where you will end up, but that's exactly what you want. You want to be somewhere unknown.
Being lost in the negative sense feels more like a failure. You began with an idea of where you want to go, but you've somehow gone astray.
On the Fish Creek trail, my failure wasn't that I got lost. I failed at taking advantage of being lost. I panicked and ran out of the woods by the fastest way, feeling relief at the sight of the highway again. I could have taken my time and looked for trails, or made my own trail along the creek.
Fish Creek could be a good training ground for following a hard-to-find trail. With the river always a back-up for bearings, you can focus on observing the subtle signs that someone has come this way before. Conventional markers are sparse, but a few people have left hints along the way - for example, a sardine can dangling from a branch was immensely reassuring at one point.
When I gave up and turned around, I had only been hiking for 40 minutes. I was well within cell phone range, and I had plenty of food, water, and warm clothes. I had a headlamp if darkness should fall. I was dry and warm in my rain gear with an extra sweater and hat in my pack.
Something else I should have brought was a willingness to get lost.
Katie Spielberger is the managing editor of the Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.