I love exploring new hiking trails. For me, trail maps are like treasure maps. I love studying them to piece together new routes to explore. My dogs eagerly sniff every new twist and turn and I love taking in the plants and wildflowers and vistas each new pathway brings.
Most hiking trails in my area are well-marked and it is easy for me to navigate my way from one trail to the next. But occasionally, things become unclear when I take a trail less-traveled. Sometimes, you reach a point where two equally worn pathways diverge and it can be difficult to tell which one is the “real trail.” Most of the time, it is easy to apply simple logic of direction to figure out which one is the imposter, but when you have been out in the wilderness for some time, it is not always clear which way points toward your destination. Even with a trail map in hand, it can be a little bit of a guessing game. I have been on some interesting adventures trying to find my way back to the “real” trail after accidentally following a decoy branch.
Sometimes, hikers leave each other helpful markers in these situations. Small piles of rocks called cairns can help alert others to an upcoming turn or something to be careful of. Summit cairns give you confirmation that you have reached the top of a large peak. One time, while I was hiking with my mom up in the Sierras, we happened upon a small sign which read: “Trail” with an arrow confirming the correct route. It was so simple and unassuming, but to a lost hiker, this assurance would be a godsend.
If only there could be little signs or cairns directing us on our path in life. How reassuring it would be to have confirmation that you made the right turn, or that you have reached your destination. How helpful it would be to have advanced warning about difficult times approaching. In life, the stakes are so much higher when choosing a path to follow. Which one is “the real trail” and what if I choose the wrong one? The longer I live, the more comfort I find in realizing that life has a way of nudging us back to the trail if we start wandering off course. It may take a little longer, but we’ll find the trail eventually. And sometimes those scenic bypasses are worth the extra time.
Sometimes, it’s not when the path is unclear that we really need a cairn to guide us on. It’s when we are walking along through life, completely sure of our path and direction. Sometimes this is when we most need to take in our surroundings and check ourselves. In these times, it is easy to overlook signs that is time to make a turn or to take caution. We feel so confident in our direction that we fail to notice that we have veered off path.
It can feel like such a failure to discover that we have to backtrack to find where we got off course. One step forward, two steps back. It may be frustrating but it is not a failure. At these times, we aren’t walking, we’re dancing. One step forward, two steps back is just what this particular dance step calls for, and another dance will have us moving side to side. All of them will have us growing and learning.
Julie Haydon is an artist and musician living the beautiful hills of Oakland, CA who creates works of beauty that brings people together. When she is not at work in the studio or making music, she is outside playing in the dirt or hiking with her husband and their two spoiled dogs.