Jake Dye looks out from the top of Gull Rock in Hope, Alaska, on Saturday, May 13, 2023. He does not yet know that the hike back is far more challenging than the hike out. (Photo courtesy Ashley Every)

Jake Dye looks out from the top of Gull Rock in Hope, Alaska, on Saturday, May 13, 2023. He does not yet know that the hike back is far more challenging than the hike out. (Photo courtesy Ashley Every)

Out of the Office: Off the map

All my life, I’ve been the member of the group who’s in charge of the map. Somewhere along the way, I began to conflate that skillset — defining a route, recognizing landmarks, remembering where I’ve been — with having a good sense of direction. That, I do not have.

That simple fact has become increasingly apparent as I’ve dared more recently to step out into the untamed wilderness of Alaska — that is, beautifully groomed recreational trails.

A few weeks ago, I hiked Gull Rock in Hope with friends. It was my first hiking experience. A 13-mile round-trip hike was maybe a little intense for a novice trip.

It was toward the end of that hike, around a mile away from making it back to the car, that we encountered a crossroads. To the left, the path we initially took when we set out, accidentally cutting through the — very flat — Porcupine Campground. To the right, plainly marked by signage, the path to the trailhead.

I argued that there’s no possible way that the direct path to the trailhead wouldn’t be shorter. It’s a straight line, it’s the Pythagorean theorem. We took that direction.

It was, per the largely accurate GPS tracker on my phone, significantly longer, and almost entirely uphill. That last 30 minutes was unquestionably the most challenging ordeal of the hike and the lowest point for team morale.

In hindsight, though, that adventure was far more engaging and memorable than a second walk through the campsite would have been.

Similarly, I recently got lost while working an assignment at Tsalteshi Trails. I was meant to be photographing a community run. I did sort of successfully do that, I just also confidently walked for way too long in the wrong direction and got desperately lost in the woods.

When I did come across a map I wasn’t anywhere near the defined course for the event I was looking to photograph. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure which direction was the right one, I was surrounded by way too many mosquitoes, and I clocked a heart rate that I would describe as concerning at best.

At the time I was sending texts for help and genuinely becoming concerned about my health. In hindsight, I won’t forget that particular jaunt through the trees.

Direction has been on my mind a lot lately. Just over a year ago, I graduated from college, and only a few months after that I found a job that uses that degree. So ended a 20-year-long path that started when I began education as a kindergartener in 2002. What exactly is supposed to happen now?

Knowing the right next move is hard. Oftentimes mistakes mean more in the long term. I find that I’m constantly chasing the fastest path from point A to point B — both on the trail and in life — because I’m profoundly scared of the finite nature of time. Recently, for the first time, I’ve found myself enjoying having a little less direction.

I’ve followed a map — moving through school, getting my degree, and seeking out a job, for 26 years. Now there’s no more map, no clearly defined next step, and it’s up to me to decide which direction to proceed in. I’m not sure which direction that is.

Recently, I’ve started to think it doesn’t matter. I don’t know what comes next, but I’m for the first time focused on the now. There’s so much more to enjoy in the moments that I previously would have tried to race past. For the first time, I’m happy here and now, and I’m not chasing the next goalpost.

There’s never going to be another map to follow, and I’m starting to think that’s a good thing. It’s about time I stop racing through life, about time I take a moment to get lost.

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