If I had kept my eyes lifted and looked straight ahead of me, I would never have become lost. But since the sweltering blaze of a blistering midsummer afternoon in August on the A.T. in Pennsylvania kept my head down — literally — I must have missed the turn.
Time has wilted with my motivation. A long roadwork through a dusty valley seemed at first an easy endeavor. An early start to beat the rising sun, to outrun its zenith, was the intention. Never made it. Lots of “cameling up” kept me alive, but pouring sweat and drenching humidity did their evil best to sap my energy. Despite many stops to rest in what shade I could find, I ended up in a late afternoon slog. The white blazes had directed me through some newly sown fields and alongside a two-lane asphalt road, now redolent with the smell of cooked tar clogging my nostrils.
Over an hour I had stashed my topographic map. Who needed in on flat roads which were well blazed and a route which was obvious?
Parched, I dipped my bandana in a trickle of dirty brown water and situated in on my neck to cool down. My breath was labored in the thick air. I wiped sweat from my brown, the bill of my ball cap soaked through. I noticed another clear turn and ended up on a shady unused railroad grade. I felt a bit more energetic and my pace quickened. Before I realized it I had covered another mile or two at least. But what tipped me off to trouble was the time; by now I should be leaving the valley to climb to a ridgeline where I would descend the other side to a cool, shaded campsite.
I stopped along the graded path and fetched my map. Nothing indicated rail line, used or not. I had decided a compass was unnecessary. My keen sense of direction said I was a fool headed East. I paid attention.
That’s when my newly recaptured attention noticed something else. I looked ahead and turned to look back. No white blazes on tree or stone. I walked ahead five minutes; no blaze. I headed back. No blazes.
I was lost.
Frustration settled in. I had never, ever become lost before. Not in the wilds of Vermont of upper Maine, not in the southern Appalachians. Nowhere. But here, where one would least expect it, it had happened. I had not been paying attention and had become mislocated.
Long story short; by the time I followed the railway grade to a road and hiked another few hours, I rediscovered the Appalachian Trail crossing.
A long, tough, hot climb — already exhausted — I fell into the campsite nearly at sunset and had just enough energy to pitch my tent before a late summer storm deluged me with thunder, lightning, and plenty of warm rain.
Later, after the storm blew itself out, I calculated my day. I should have ended up backpacking only nine miles. I had completed…twenty-two! It was the longest day of backpacking I had ever undertaken. Unintentionally, of course.
Simple lesson learned through misery: always keep your head up! Never assume you won’t require a compass check. And don’t assume that walking such a well-blazed trail as the A.T. means you can’t get lost!