Did I pass the turnoff? I glanced at the back of a receipt, marked up with directions to an inconspicuous trailhead, hand-drawn by a guy at the bike shop.
Rumors of burgeoning singletrack in Small Town, Washington lured me to make an unplanned detour in the midst of a longer road trip. With no prior knowledge of this town and little information found online, I headed to the local bike shop, where I could most always count on making new friends and tapping into their trail expertise. He suggested a ride and sketched out the driving directions like a game of Pictionary, noting various landmarks through the woods. With this beta in hand, I made it to the second intersection before giving up and turning around.
Acquiring beta is wildly helpful when you’re exploring somewhere new. This insider information, usually given out by a credible source, is often more helpful than any other guidebook. Measurements aren’t always the most accurate (“Go about five minutes down the road until you cross the railroad tracks.”), but local beta accounts for important details that printed sources miss (“The signs were taken out by a storm, but fork left when you see an orange flag in the tree.”). Beta, however, doesn’t guarantee immediate access to where you’re going. It hinges on your own ingenuity to do something with it.
I could rattle off a list of other promising adventures cut short by no good reason, beta notwithstanding. I’ve tried to rationalize this bad habit and, in the process, have discovered one glaringly obvious trend: it generally occurs when I’m traveling solo – as is the case with most of my outdoor adventures. There’s an unconscious point on a given journey that I just stop, look around and decide I’m done. There are lots of times I don’t even make it to the end of my objective. Understanding this little fact, the best theory I can offer is decisively superficial: I don’t like to venture too far into new territory when I’m alone. It’s something about getting lost. Or the feeling of maybe getting lost. It’s a funny claim coming from someone who’s on a Search and Rescue team and enjoys taking the path less traveled.
Exploring the outdoors – wrapped in all its unpredictability, vulnerabilities, wrong turns and encounters that test your deepest strength – can be scary. Doing that by yourself while twisting your experiences into a heady metaphor can be even scarier. That’s been the case every two months when I sit down to write the very narrative you’re reading. I’ll collect beta from a recent trip, then use it to toe into new territory that’s lodged inside my grey matter. Sometimes I come out of it unscathed. Sometimes I miss the turnoff and get lost in complex reflections that are disguised as sunsets in the desert, hikes in the mountains or road trips to the unknown.
I can only hope that I haven’t been entirely alone in exploring the philosophical side of outdoor recreating, but this shit’s getting too heavy for my liking. So for now, I’m putting a halt to this column, peeling off from the objective I had when I first started penning these essays. It’s been a hell of a trip, but it’s time to change direction. Who knows where the next journey will go, but I hope you’ll join me wherever it is.
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road