Over the past few years I’ve occasionally experimented with two solutions to backpacking and hiking malaise. The first is to go where there are no trails, and use animal corridors and decayed paths to make your way. This approach has resulted in a few of my most memorable hikes. The other approach is to go in intentionally undergunned on maps, either with a big scale overview (1:100,000 or more) or just with no map at all.
For some this might be a bad idea, but in most places most of us live it is difficult to get especially lost. Panic in the face of setbacks, or trying to force a way through hairy terrain, has been the cause of many backcountry injuries, but one of the biggest virtues of this exercise is to leave a few more of your mental assurances at home, and get a more precise sense of exactly what worries you out in the woods.
Terrain will shape the sort of ambiguity you’ll most often find. On the above mentioned trip getting from one point to another was not a big worry; with a single direction of travel and umissable landmarks running perpendicular every few miles the room for error was in mezzo route finding, which is to say in exactly how long it would take to get from one benchmark to another. The first time I walked the Norris traverse in Glacier I purposively took only a comically vague map, figuring that the big picture route would be obvious, and that the opportunity to experience the smaller complications with fresh eyes would be induplicable. Doing this in 4th class terrain is not for everyone, but with fresh eyes I did better than M and I did going the opposite direction, and on the orthodox route, a year later.
This week I headed into the foothills of some of our boundlessly anonymous local mountains, a places with roads on two sides and a lake on another, determined to walk one ridge out and another back. I brought no map.
This mostly worked, and made for a fantastic trip. A big limestone arch in an un-named canyon, snatches of elk trail, ridgetop ponderosa parks, and a bunch of Mountain Bluebirds arriving with the cusp of spring; all not unexpected, but surprising anyway.
Hikes like this unite the bare wonder of my childhood wanderings in tiny slices of Ohio hardwoods, with the poise decades of experience has bred. And that is a pleasant combination.
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