"Whoa, let's do that!", I exclaim as I wave my index finger in the direction of my laptop, where the credits are rolling after an online lecture on wilderness navigation. I've always wondered what would happen if there were no trail markers, the cell phone battery died, the GPS device fell into the river, and the folding map blew where Bob Dylan's answers blow: into the wind.
So far, I think I would have simply been toast.
But after viewing the wilderness lecture, I'm full of enthusiasm. Sun position, wind, sounds, smells, and landmarks can all come together in my head to form a complete plan about the terrain, or so saith the wilderness professor in the video. All without Google Maps, "You are here" arrows, signs, or similar trail aids.
A few days later, my boyfriend drops me off on a small dirt trail in a valley and gives me the task of finding him and the car at the same spot after a round of hiking without a map. While I am gone, he wants to try to figure out all the intricacies of our newly acquired fancy compass, which looks suspiciously like rocket science to me. It looks as if it uses numbers. I hate numbers.
So off I go. Naïvely. Who could have known that a few miles later I'd be stumbling haphazardly through a river, staring at giant cat tracks, and one particularly path-defining smell would be my own fear sweat.
"West!" I yell euphorically at the afternoon sun, which is slowly approaching the distant horizon. Glad this matter is settled! The wind is also coming from the west. Convenient. I don't need to remember so much. Individual noises of nature are difficult to hear because of the wind. Everything around me smells like sagebrush. Perhaps that is because there are three million square miles of sagebrush everywhere around me. There are also usable landmarks. Directly in front of me, a brown mountain peak that looks like a pyramid; a little farther to the right, a mountain with an oversized basalt Lego stone on top; and behind me, three snow-capped peaks that I christen "the three Sisters".
Let's go! I boot my way through the sage-covered plains, heading towards the mountainside. Again and again, I look toward the sun, which amazingly is still in the west. Then I almost trip over a sagebrush. The trail turns right, so the basalt Lego stone is now directly in my field of vision. Quickly, I take another look at the sun. Just to be safe. If I keep going at this pace, I'll soon see the moon.
After a while the path becomes a bit unclear. But I have my landmarks on the horizon and I'm not in the Negev desert. I will be all right.
Suddenly a stream crosses my path. Directly behind it I note a lonely tree standing without leaves, which shines white in the sun (which is still in the west!). I have waterproof boots on, but the river is partly covered with a thin layer of ice and snow. So you can’t really tell what's lurking beneath. I poke around in the ice crystals with my walking stick. It all feels stiff and stable. I take a step forward and whoosh—I’m up to my ankle in brown slush.
For some unknown reason—stupidity, arrogance, or death wish—I suddenly feel the need to film this adventurous river crossing. So, I fiddle around with my walking stick and cell phone as I maneuver my way through layers of water and ice. As I put one foot in the middle of the water, three things happen in rapid succession: First the water tries to run into the top my shoes. Second, I almost drop the cell phone and third, the stick tries to fall out of my hand. Great. I unwillingly wind up leaning heavily into a sage bush on the other side of the stream.
Afterwards I put the cell phone away inconspicuously and make a run for it. Not that anyone would have seen me, because there's no one out here but me.
Shortly thereafter, I pass a strange ant hill with an unnaturally large hole in it. I wonder if someone has been poking around in it with a walking stick. It wasn't me because I don't like to disturb critters.
With a view of Pyramid Mountain and Lego Stone, I climb higher and higher until I look down and suddenly discover large paw prints lurking in the snow in front of me.
I'm no field biologist, but there's no doubt the prints belong to a cat. A big cat. In addition to bears, wolves, and coyotes, there are also mountain lions in the area. While bears can often be driven off by loud noises or, in a pinch, bear spray (a kind of pepper spray for the wild), mountain lions behave like real cats: unpredictable and possibly in a playful mood. Which means: the hiker is the mouse.
I get heat attacks. The tracks are still quite fresh. Around me are three million square miles of sagebrush. The dusty ground and brown rocks are ideal camouflage for cougars. Suddenly I am hearing sounds other than the wind. My breath. And my heart.
I consider turning back. But how will I ever hike, navigate, and survive alone in a real wilderness, 200 miles from the nearest civilization, if I'm already wetting my panties and running away right now. I look up at the rock formation I've dubbed "the three Sisters." I breathe in and out. Screw the lion. I'm going to keep walking. If only to show myself that it's possible to keep going.
With a queasy stomach, I climb up to a vertical cliff on Pyramid Mountain, which I have chosen as the destination for today's hike. Then I sit down.
Didn’t something just move down in the valley? Something big and brown? I look toward the sun, which is slowly disappearing behind the mountains. "West," I say quietly. Then I take out my cell phone and start the music player. The Beatles are playing. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” I immediately begin to feel better, and not so alone. All of a sudden, I call out, "Sarah in the Sky with Diamonds and Mountain Lions!" and laugh out loud.
As I'm heading back, something happens that was almost predictable: through the river excursion and the mountain lion chatter, I wasn't really paying attention to where I was going anymore. The trail is gone. Just sagebrush everywhere. Great Scott. Neither the sun nor the wind are helping me locate my position. I could look at my phone and cheat, but I have no signal for Google Maps and my offline map doesn't show the trail. "You're here," says the GPS arrow in the middle of a green expanse of nothing.
I put the phone away before the mountain lion can eat it.
I traipse roughly in the direction I came from. With the help of the pyramid, the Lego brick and the "three Sisters," I can at least make sure that I'm not running in circles. In case of emergency, I may have to bushwhack my way through the sage back to the parking lot. Just as I'm seriously considering this, I see an ant hill. With an unnaturally large hole. I'm freaking out! Never have I been so happy to see an ant hill! Shortly after, I see the lone, bare tree. By memorizing these small landmarks, I now know where I am. I walk toward the tree and come to the river, which I cross this time at a narrower spot without a cell phone in my hand. "Hallelujah!", I shout so loud that Leonard Cohen's ears would probably have fallen off.
When I see the parking lot and the car, my boyfriend waves at me with compass in hand. He has figured out how the damn thing works and wants to explain it to me right away.
But first he asks, "So, how was it?"
I look at the sun, which has meanwhile disappeared behind the mountains. West, I think. Wild West. Holy