The light was vanishing off the mountain, the ragged teeth of jack pine forests falling into deep shadow. The skin on my spine prickled into goosebumps, tightness gathering in the pit of my stomach. In the pack on my back, my three-year-old nephew shifted restlessly.
Night was falling on the mountain. I didn't know where I was.
The Cloud Peak Wilderness, located high in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains, is an expansive chunk of territory with a uniquely limited number of people. During the daylight, this had been a welcome discovery as we hiked deeper into the wild.
Now, dusk settling, I felt keenly out of place. At the age of 21, this was the first time I'd been further west than Minnesota, the first time I'd even seen real mountains. This was a landscape I was utterly unfamiliar with.
Twelve miles in on what the map had indicated was a loop trail, it had become painfully apparent the trail was steadily taking us deeper into the wilderness. I glanced from the map to my sister, wondering if the same thought was occurring to her. Going at a slow ramble, the 12 miles had taken several hours. With darkness falling, I realized we were severely underprepared.
A first-timer in the mountains, I was unaware how rapidly temperatures declined at these altitudes, how quickly storms can gather against the side of a mountain. We had no flashlights, no waterproof gear – nothing except for light jackets, drinking water, and some snacks. Our cellphones had lost signal when we had entered the wilderness.
We were lost.
Were we lost?
At the age of 21, I'd never been lost before in my life although I'd spent a lifetime in the woods of northern Wisconsin. There had been plenty of times I hadn't known exactly where I was, but I would never have considered myself lost.
I looked at the map again, pinpointing roughly where I believed we were. The map was outdated, and I suspected the trail we were on was a couple miles off the one on the printed map I had. Still a nearby lake helped me triangular where I thought we likely were.
With the compass that comes in my cellphone, I realized we weren't that far from an old logging road that would get us out of the wilderness a lot quicker than following the trail back.
A few miles of bushwhacking later, we spilled out on the road only a couple miles from where we'd left my car and tent.
Years later now, I look back on that experience and chuckle – there could have been no surer mark of a newcomer to the mountains than getting lost on the first hike. Still, there was a lesson to be learned in how we made it out.
Since that mountain, I've spent many years of exploring northern Wisconsin, northern Michigan, Lake Superior, the western United States, and various pockets of Canadian wilderness. I've never been what I would consider truly lost.
There have certainly been times when I haven't been entirely certain of where I am, and I have a dubious relationship with loop trails.
Yet I've come to believe the difference between being lost or not is in the way you approach the scenario. Unless you have been dropped out of a plane in an utterly unfamiliar territory, chances are you walked your way right into the state of being lost. In my experience, people do a few different things at this juncture. They either panic, press blindly on, or pause and reset themselves.
On that evening in the Bighorns, we could have turned back and walked the 12 miles back. But on a rough, unmarked trail we would have ended up hiking in darkness and risked becoming truly lost overnight with temperatures dipping to the 40s. It was a calculated risk to bushwhack off the trail, but I was confident in my ability to pinpoint where we were and how close the adjacent road was. We made it out in daylight and left a marked trail behind us so that we could have found our way back if worst had come to worst.
These days, I don't go places I don't know without being better prepared. I make sure my maps are up to date, know when the sun sets, and bring enough gear to withstand sudden weather changes.
I like to leave some room for exploration, though, and I'd argue that many of the best experiences I've ever had happened when I've ended up just a bit off where I planned to go. There is something to be said for growing comfortable with a little uncertainty in life, and learning the skills needed to cut a new path when needed.