The map in my hands has been folded and re-folded hundreds of times, the earth image on its surface formed into a grid of rectangular sections. There are purple-ink pen marks circling the tips of peaks and several sets of dotted lines marking potential approach or descent. Stretching the map to its full expanse, my fingers stick on a telltale circular brown stain in the bottom right-hand corner. A messy alpine start has left its mark - an over-full coffee mug.
I refer to this meditative moment (and any moment like it) as ‘map time’ (alternatively ‘mapnerding’). Sometimes it happens when I’m sitting on the edge of a glorious montane vista. Other times I am crouched on the living room floor, plotting the following week’s adventure in unfamiliar terrain. Most often, it occurs when I’m zipped into my sleeping bag deep in the backcountry, rain and hail pelting the tent over my head. For all my years spent backpacking and spending nights in the woods, I remain terrible at managing sleep in the outdoors. My insomnia finds great comfort in the hypnosis of topographic lines lit by headlamp.
This great reverence for hand-held paper maps is rooted in the past two decades of backcountry travel under my boots. I limped through my family’s first backpacking trip along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the summer of 2000, unsure of where we were - and unsure how long it would take to arrive back at the blessed parking lot. My horrifically blistered feet could sought respite. When pestered, my dad (or whichever family member was charged with navigation that day) would assure us that camp was “just around this next bend” – it became a running joke for us. “Stop worrying about the end. Life is a journey, not a destination.” From then on, I became obsessed with finding my own way, both literally and figuratively. That trip occurred the same summer that I graduated from high school, packed away my childhood, and left the Midwest for good.
These days I study maps to stay oriented. I like to chart a course for myself on paper and follow it – it reminds me of my own internal compass. Life has startled me in how nonlinear it can feel, how drifting. We progress and regress. We move laterally. Society told us that we would live a life from one step to the next, but the crooked nature of our true path dispels that notion. Being in the backcountry calms me (and all comparable drifting personalities) and provides physical directions for me to follow – the charted course of the stars. The arc of the sun in the sky and the different aspects of a mountainside. North, south, east, west. The soothing patterns of the earth.
We all long for this type of direction, as it gives us a sense of momentary control over the wild world around us. My personality compass points straight north, in the way of decisionmakers. Endurance athletes, leaders, warriors. People who value certainty, resolution, confidence. Our abrupt and forceful nature is our strength and our weakness. I am trying to center myself more, to take more deep breaths, to value other angles.
Amidst the chaos of life, I take a bearing. Eyes lift to the horizon.
Now – which way?