There are some woods by the house I used to live in, back when I used to live in the conurbation of a major eastern city called Chicago, in a universe far, far away. Those woods are slowly lapsing back into oak savannah, and crossed with muddy paths. I can’t tell you the number of times I felt as if I’d stumbled onto the wrong path and become lost back there in those forests. But every time, I ended up connecting back up with the path that lead me where I wanted to go. Usually I ended up back on the trail I’d somehow lost. Sometimes, the path I’d gotten lost on spilled me out of the woods just where I wanted to exit. I couldn’t get lost even if I tried. In biology, this phenomenon is called entelechy. It means that an organizing living system, when frustrated from reaching its developmental goal, will find other ways to reach its ultimate objective. A line may be the shortest distance between points, but we usually walk in circles to get there.
I won’t forget my very first trip to Canyonlands National Park. I’d been to Arches, and hiked its June sands. The next day, I decided to try the north end of Canyonlands, at Island in the Sky. After completing an early morning hike, I looked at my topo map and decided to do a second day hike along the Synchline Trail. This loop trail didn’t look too formidable on the map. Several hours later in the desert sun, I realized what I’d gotten myself into. It turned into something like an eight hour trek. At first, I had my bearings and there were people all around me. But then somehow I ended up lost and alone. I was on a trail. I knew that much. But I was convinced I’d gone off the Synchline and that I’d stumbled onto some other route. I was tired. I had enough water, but I just wanted the damn hike to be over already. Finally I ran into some hikers who told me I was still on the Synchline, almost at trail’s end. There I was again, feeling lost, thinking I was off track, but right on course.
I was hauling my bones up a great big slab of slick rock when I ran into a National Park Service ranger whom I’ll call Kate, because that’s her real name. Let me put in my plug for the NPS and it’s people. They are without exception knowledgeable, dedicated, passionate and the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. They love what they do, and they love to help people. I’ve learned things from them that may have saved my life. Kate was no exception. She was carrying extra water for people near the end of this lonely trail who may have run out or become lost.
Kate was a little green at her job, and she huffed and puffed and sweated her way to the canyon rim. She looked like she could have used a little of my uumph, if I had any to spare. So I got the idea that maybe I could hike with her the rest of the way up. Watching her sweat a Little Colorado River took my mind off my own groaning bones. I didn’t know if she was going to make it. She said she didn’t know if she could either. I offered her granola, food for the body, and encouragement, food for the soul. We made frequent pit stops.
Helping a St. Bernard-type person to the rim didn’t do much to diminish my rescuer complex. She’d thank me again and again. I think she was embarrassed. But she was so young and new at this. It was all kind of made for TV.
“The other rangers,” she panted, “left me behind. They went on search and rescue.”
“That water you’re carrying for thirsty hikers? That’s search and rescue,” I panted back. “It’s a fact you’re rescuing me by keeping me from thinking about how much my toes hurt right about now.”
“It’s just that I feel so out of shape, ya know?”
“You’ll get back in shape,” I said as I stopped and swigged. “It’s all just a matter of conditioning anyway. I knew this guy, back in Chicago. Smoked a pack-and-a-half of Marlboro Reds a day. He ran the Chicago Marathon. A neighbor was 76 and he did the Iron Man.”
She nodded and wiped the train of sweat from her nose. We hiked up an incline of sandstone, then danced over some potholes.
“Sometimes I wonder whether I can handle this,” she wondered.
“Aw, c’mon. It takes five years to get good at any job. I should know. I’ve had enough of them.”
“Yeah, I guess,” she agreed with an uncertain grimace.
She loved talk. It was part of a befriending spirit she seemed to possess. It made her good at her job.
“My supervisor is supposed to wait for me back at the Park entrance. He’s my ride. If I’m late getting back, I’m afraid I won’t have a ride back to town.”
“Oh, I’m you’re ride, ma’am,” I assuaged her in my mock cowboy dialect that matched my crushable felt hat.
“That’s very sweet,” she remarked as she continued in the lead, stopping to rebuild a trail cairn. “Sorry I’m such a complainer.”
“Every flaw’s an asset in disguise. All the people who stood for change were complainers, if you think about it. If people didn’t bitch, the world would still be medieval.”
“You’re very . . . “ she began. She couldn’t think of the words to finish.
“Astute? Deep?” I supplied.
“A know-it-all,” she concluded.
Kate described what it was like to be an NPS ranger. I learned they didn’t make much money. They lived in sometimes Spartan conditions, and they didn’t get their choice of assignments. It could be a lonely, hard life. We stopped for another drink. She kept on thanking me, and I felt compelled to stanch her involuntary spasms of gratitude.
“Kate, one of the reasons I take these trips is for the people I’ll meet. When I run into someone out on the trail, there’s always a reason for it. I have something to give them and they have something for me.”
“I never thought of that.”
“I may not know what I’m running into that particular person for. But something
they say may come in handy six months or six years from now. Somehow, whatever encouragement I’m giving you? It’ll all be given back to me.”
“Thank you for saying that.”
“Will you stop thanking me?”
I capped my canteen.
“You’ll get a chance to pass this on to somebody else,” I promised, sounding like I’d just invented the law of karma.
“Thanks. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she corrected herself.
I just smiled, and we moved on over a final ridge of Navajo sandstone that capped a rusty bed. We’d made it to the end of the trail.
“Well, I guess this is it. Wanna ride?” I asked.
She looked at her watch.
“My ride should still be here.”
She gave me a hug. Wasn’t that unethical or something? Well, it felt good anyway. I bid Kate goodbye. I jumped in my car and onto the highway. I headed in the direction of my air conditioned hotel room in Moab. Some backpacker I was back then.
Moab was about 20 miles away. I didn’t have but one-eighth of a tank of gas, and my ‘LOW FUEL’ light clicked on. I knew I didn’t have the gas to make it all the way back. I’d depleted all my water, and the sun was going down. My plan had been to re-hydrate at the hotel. The thing about southeastern Utah is that it’s not an area rich in taxicabs or Seven-11’s. And for me, it’s real easy to get lost on the roads. When you get lost without gas, and you’re dehydrated without any water, well, you should probably send up a flare or something. I was all out of flares.
I made a couple turns and got onto a winding highway that seemed unfamiliar. My gas tank was getting precariously near the ‘THUMB IT’ reading, and I was faced with a decision: I could gamble and keep driving the road I was on. I remembered there was a gas station a few miles ahead if I was right. But if I was wrong? My cell phone was out of juice, so no 911, had there been any cell towers around anyway. There weren’t too many people riding this road. In fact, back then you could spend a long time driving without encountering another car. I felt woozy from lack of fluids. City person I was, I started to panic. I decided to pull over, and think: always a disaster for me. Soon, I hallucinated a convoy of grape Gatorade tankers in the distance. I preferred lime.
As I pondered what the water from my radiator would taste like after it cooled, I heard a car coming up from behind, heading in my direction. I flagged it down. It was Kate, the Ranger. Was this the right road to Moab?
“You bet,” she told me.
“See, I told you you’d come in handy,” I said.
She waved and moved on. I got in my car and drove. That gas station I remembered? It was about a few miles down the path, just beyond the next kink of S curves. Need I say more? Well, not really, but I will anyway.
Again, I’d convinced myself I was on the wrong road. But I was on the right road, so close to my destination, so close to the waiting arms of the gas station. The waiting arms of the gas station? What can I say? When you’re out in the desert too long, you run out of metaphors, too.
I’m cultivating a faith in the rightness of whatever path I’m on. Unless it’s marked “This is the path that leads to destruction,” it will lead me to the right destination. I’m supposed to be here now, not there. I’m supposed to be doing what I am doing now, not something else. Even if I’m convinced that the path I’m on isn’t the “right” path now, it will usually take me back to a path that is true and sure for me.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just