Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lost. So lost.

I am working on improving my navigational skills. It is a terrifying prospect. In my early 20s, I leaned on friends to handle much of the route-finding on backpacking trips through Utah's canyon country. By my late 20s, I was leaning on GPS. I had my Atlas and USGS topographic maps to piece together mountain excursions in Juneau, bikepacking trips in Utah, and jeep road explorations in Montana — but GPS was always there to lend a friendly screen as I stared bewildered into the tree- or fog-obscured wilderness. Orienteering sounded to me like a not fun sport. Constant focus and translation of maps and non-specific gadgets like compasses and altimeters took away all of the fun of hiking. I like to just hike and look up. What's so wrong with that?

Lately I have been spending more time looking at maps and am beginning to read up on orienteering techniques. Completely unrelated to my map study, on Thursday I set up a plan to meet a friend in Berkeley in the late afternoon. In an effort to beat what can often be horrific traffic, I left two hours early and figured I could kill some time writing at a coffee shop. But then I thought it sounded better to head to Tilden Park for a quick, maybe hour-long run. I'd run with Ann in Tilden Park before, and I knew the general layout and a few specific trail sections. My car's GPS was not so helpful in finding a known trailhead; after accidentally crossing the first half of the Bay Bridge (yeah, I suck at freeway navigation, too), I meandered somewhat aimlessly toward the hills until I happened upon an entrance to the park. I looked at the clock. I still had time.

The trailhead post offered free trail maps. I studied the lines and contours and determined what looked like a great five- or six-mile loop, climbing up to a ridge, dropping into a canyon, and following a creek back to the trailhead. Easy Peasy.

Disorientation set in within a half mile. There were twisty turns and unmarked trail junctions, and yet somehow I made it to the ridge, ran along the smooth and comforting rollers with lots of landmarks in view, located the turn 2.5 miles in, and dropped into the canyon. After a half mile of twisty turns through the woods, I wasn't exactly sure whether I was running west or south, or whether I was even on a mapped trail. There weren't that many other trails on the map, but there seemed to be plenty of junctions. Yes, I get it. Maps are sort of useless without a compass. Another quarter mile across a rocky creek bed and back up a steep hillside had me questioning whether I'd even started where I thought I'd started, if I was still somewhere in Berkeley, or maybe space-time had transported me to southern Oregon or an oaken hillside in the year 1886. I mean, when you feel lost, you feel lost. The ridge was still up there somewhere, so I took the first opportunity to veer onto a fire road — not signed — and began to climb up a steep, grassy hillside.

Of course the climb was about a thousand feet. Of course I ran out of water. Of course I was behind schedule. I grabbed my cell phone to call my friend — not only to inform her I'd be late, but also hopeful that if I described my surroundings, she could tell me where I was — but there was no reception. Maybe I had been transported to 1886! But no, there were the shimmering skyscrapers of San Francisco. How the hell can I be lost in Berkeley, California? How have I gone so many years and so many adventures on my own, while remaining so bad at orientation and navigation?

Finally I gained a summit with a view of San Pablo Reservoir. This was the right ridge. I just needed to find my original route. The fireroad turned in the wrong direction, and impatience had me nearly slicing through brush flourishing with poison oak, but I held off until I located an intersection. Really, not that difficult. But it's funny how panicked I become when I don't understand exactly where I am. This does not bode well for improving my navigational prowess. Not at all.

Going back the exact way I came something like five miles later wasn't even completely straightforward. I didn't remember the trail being so narrow, so steep, so brushy. Maybe I just didn't remember. Ga! By the time I stumbled back to the trailhead, I buried my face in a drinking fountain for several minutes and then sheepishly made my way through the meandering streets to my friend's house. Maybe I could tell her I got stuck in traffic and no one would ever have to know. But no, shame is probably the only way I'm ever going to get any better at this.