It’s easy to get lost. When the mind focuses on only what’s ahead and neglects to acknowledge where it has been, that’s when things get a bit … dark.
I moved to Calaveras at the start of the pandemic. Just driving around in a vehicle, I’ve gotten turned around a lot – almost more times than when an avid hiker gears up with bear spray and ends a hike without having to use it. Hiking in nature is more forgiving within the immediate surroundings. There’s a freedom in every step and an adventure just waiting at the start of every trailhead.
It must be the rebellious teenager still deep down inside that urges my feet to wander off the main trail, tread on the freshly fallen leaves on the other side of the stream, and trek to places where few have gone.
I always ponder, “What does the view look like from up there,” or, “What’s behind this little hill next to the trail?”
I’ve always found my way back, but I have my father, Jed, to thank for that.
One summer, he took me on a new hike to an enchanted place near Tahoe, where we have a family cabin. The air was fresh and cool that morning – we saw a few marmots enjoying the day. Shortly after we started on the dirt-path trail, he stopped.
Always look behind you, in spurts, when you are hiking, he said. That way, when you come back, you see things that look familiar. Don’t get lost.
I had utilized this piece of wisdom in every walk and hike from that day forward. I was especially grateful for this trail tip a few years ago when I hiked three-quarters to the top of San Gorgonio, the tallest peak in Southern California.
The 17-mile trail should have typically been completed in a day – there and back again – by moderate to experienced day hikers. With my hiking tendencies, however, I never found myself reaching the summit.
With an elevation gain of nearly 6,000 feet, I took my time trekking upward. I immersed myself in the trees, the creeks and the many wildlife that also ventured off and on the trail.
Halfway to the summit, I did one of my usual “take backs,” and had to squint and nearly shake my head to comprehend what was in my line of sight. It was a large brown fuzzy figure on the switchbacks a few hundred yards behind, but it was moving slowly.
It was my first time encountering a brown bear, and with bear spray in hand, I forced myself not to panic – and definitely not run.
The bear casually walked along the trails with its nose to the ground, sniffing away as I was able to sneak more quickly along the trail, looking back as I turned each corner.
Once I got to a stream threequarters up, I had to stop. It wasn’t the bear or another predator, but the view of a glorious sunset. The mixture of yellows, reds and blues from the sky in the day commandeered the horizon.
It wasn’t until the sun fully disappeared from sight when I realized what exactly was happening – I was watching the sunset from 12 miles into the trail without an overnight pack and a college exam in the morning.
Luckily, my hiking pack was a bit stocked with miscellaneous things for day hiking – water, snacks, first-aid kit, sprays (bear, bug and sunscreen), knives, hatchet, rope, knee braces, trekking poles (which I use while moving downhill), digital camera and a compass (yes, an old-fashioned compass – the cellphone was left in the car). I was even fortunate to remember a headlamp.
Even in the dark, it’s amazing how a small amount of light can bring familiar twists, turns, trees and streams to the recent memory. I didn’t see the bear on my trek down the mountain, just an opossum, raccoon and a few bats fluttering in the cool brisk wind. I trust that the bear found some grubs to occupy its evening or nestled in for the winter in a dark den somewhere.
I am careful not to trek at night in these new hills of Gold Country without either a guide or a physical topographic map of the area.
To avoid the unsettling surprises of being somewhat stalked on a trail 12 miles away from vehicle transportation, I always remember to look behind. There could be the dirt-paved parking lot, deciduous trees losing their leaves, evergreens showing off their bright earthly colors, or there very much could be a brown, fuzzy bear – curious with its nose to the ground.