Sunday, October 24, 2010


A couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Chicago for the annual HR Technology Conference. To the unwashed, I'm sure that sounds like a niche within a niche, but the event gathers close to 3,000 professionals from around the world. And quite a few of them have become very good friends over the course of my career.

Rather than take the traditional conventioneer approach of late nights and foggy mornings, I elected this trip to get up early and go for a jog on the lakefront. It was the perfect time of year for it. Mostly clear skies, late sunrise, mild temperatures.

Somewhere up around Soldier Field, I took a wrong turn and wound up on top of a parking structure. I knew I was heading back toward the lake front, and started to "bushwhack" across the top of the lot, thinking (as I typically do) that my keen sense of internal direction would carry the day.

"I may have to hop a fence or plow through some bushes, but I know the lake is generally 'over there' so I'm good," I thought to myself.

And then I stopped.

As is so often the case, I was ready to persevere along my current course rather than turning back in order to go forward or (horrors!) ask for directions. This time I caught myself, fully aware that I was a) being foolish and b) had a schedule to keep.

As I reversed down the path already traveled, I spent some time thinking about a world where we are constantly in the presence of GPS, moving maps and products so epically named "Never Lost."

As a kid down in Southern California, my friend Matt and I would take the bus up to Malibu and find our way back behind the shopping center, into relative wildland along Malibu Creek. Sure, we weren't ever that far from homes or roads, but we were in places that rarely, if ever, saw the footprints of people. We were off the grid before there was one, and it is hard to imagine a parent today that would feel comfortable with their 10 or 11-year-old disappearing for an entire day at a time. But we did.

If the way forward required navigating underbrush or wading in knee-deep murk, we were undeterred. I can still taste that rich putrid smell of creek-bottom mud, the kind that permanently bonds to tube socks and probably inspired the inventor of the automatic washing machine.

But our reward was broad, calm freshwater pools and soft sand beaches filled with complete silence. We'd swim, catch crayfish and sunfish with our hands, and then sit out in the sunshine to dry out our clothes.

The crayfish were like little waterborne alligator lizards -- good sport to catch and release in the moment. They were incredibly quick, and good for a nasty pinch if you didn't grab them just right, which typically resulted in an explosive expletive from the pinch-ee and explosive laughter from the local audience. Matt liked to take the sunfish home, typically in a plastic bag as though he'd won them in a ping pong ball toss at the county fair. He had a substantial, by our standards, garage-sale aquarium in his room, where he managed to raise a few of the fish to the size of salad plates.

So, like I said, we'd dry ourselves in the sun, head back down the creek to the bus stop and head home. Those were summer weekends.

20 years later, a group of us were on a company-sponsored camping trip to the Western Sierra in an area called The Dardanelles near the Sonora Pass. A few of us elected to take a long hike along a loop trail -- I think it was supposed to be about 12 miles -- up to the nearby peaks. It was a beautiful summer, and we arrived up in a beautiful high-mountain meadow around mid-day. The wildflowers were head high and abundant, the air was clear and the sky delivered its multi-hued blue that comes with altitude.

On the far side of the meadow, where we'd hoped to find the continuation of our loop, there was only a marker for the trail over Sonora Pass. Knowing this couldn't possibly be the way back to the campground, we elected to take first one, and then another, and then another in a series of game trails through the treeline. A few of us (I think we were a group of 5 in all) were confident in our direction of travel, down into the valley cut by the stream that passed through the campground.

Within a couple of hours, we were scrambling over big granite boulders and scree fields, alternately descending through a series of small waterfalls. That may sound an odd choice, but the terrain was so steep and the surface so unstable -- it was made up of what I remember as tiny chips of granite -- that the gradual step-downs of the waterfalls and pools made it easier to traverse.

At one point, our Black Lab, Sierra, who was quite an experienced hiker in her own right, was cautiously making her way across the top of a five or six foot fall, with Beth's hand wrapped around her collar to keep her safe. And then Beth was yelling with the empty collar in her hand, as the dog unceremoniously landed feet-up in the pool below. For a moment, everyone stopped cold thinking that surely she'd be seriously injured.

At that point, one of the members of our party sat down. She was done. Scared, and ready to spend the night on the side of the mountain rather than continue down and risk getting hurt. Sierra, it turns out, was fine. The dog was clearly shaken, but uninjured. But it took about 20 minutes of talking to get the group back moving downhill. Up to that point, I'd been moving along under my own assumption that just by keeping on going we'd be aok. And it was startling to consider that we were really and truly lost.

We pressed on as the daylight waned, and finally reached the valley floor as the stars (and thankfully a little moonlight) erupted overhead. The dog took the lead as we found the trail again and made our way back to the campground, where we discovered that the search and rescue teams had been called and were waiting till dawn to come looking for us -- sure that we'd headed off over the Sonora pass.

For her part, Sierra went straight into the tent and went to sleep. The rest of us did what any 20-somethings would do. We drank beer and told stories around the campfire. And enjoyed our dinner.

Sometimes it is good to be lost.


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