I find my inner compass, again

It looked like such a short walk on my map. It should be a piece of cake, nothing to it. There wasn't any formal trail, but how difficult could it be? The map showed it was less than a mile downhill to the stream, where I'd check out the trees I was interested in, turn around, and come back - uphill.

I really didn't give it a second thought. I got my camera bag and my binoculars and headed off into the woods.

This part of the second-growth forest in Pennsylvania has been badly damaged by overabundant deer. They have eaten almost all the understory shrubs and saplings. The forest floor is virtually bare of anything except ferns, so you can see a long way among the trees. The forest had been cut in the early part of this century and allowed to come back however it could. Much of it had been bought up by the state to become part of the 2 million-acre state forest system.

Here on the Allegheny Plateau, it was virtually unpopulated - no roads, no people, square miles of forest stretching in every direction. I had seen no one all day.

The place I was heading for was an anomaly, a mistake, a place the loggers had missed. Maybe it was too remote even for the logging railroads that had gone up virtually every drainage to get the timber out. Maybe there was an accident of surveying, leading to a dispute of ownership.

For whatever reason, here was a pocket of virgin forest, a rarity, one of some 50 relatively small plots remaining in all of Pennsylvania. (But even a small amount is more than most states in the eastern United States have.) This particular place was said to have a fine stand of hemlocks and white pines, typical of the original forest here, and therefore specially interesting. What other plants and animals might be associated with these ancient remnants?

I've been doing this kind of cross-country wandering, for one reason or another, for a long time. When I was doing my fieldwork for an advanced degree in geology, I hiked in straight lines across the open high country of West Texas, looking at volcanic rocks ... and avoiding testy cattle, cactus, and rattlesnakes.

I had hiked miles off-road in dense forest areas of Yellowstone National Park, collecting rocks again. And I'd been in the Pennsylvania woods off and on for 30 years. I ought to know ... and evidently think I know ... what I'm doing.

SO, off I went. To my surprise, I soon broke out into a broad-open power-line right-of-way. I hadn't noticed it on the map, but yes, there it was. I crossed it and kept going. I went up a low slope, looking for the break down into the stream valley.

I noticed that the forest floor was becoming crowded with mountain laurel. It no longer had that wide-open vista. But here came the crest, and down it went. I followed along, the going getting more and more cluttered, then opening up again.

The sky had clouded up, and slowly I began to feel that something was going wrong. The sun was gone, and it dawned on me that I didn't have a compass. The ground surface was more variable than it had looked on the map. There were unexpected ups and downs. I couldn't see very far. This could be a problem.

I turned around and started back toward what I hoped was my starting point. But as you step around a tree, stumble a bit, and sidestep a downed log, you never hit the exact heading again.

Within a few minutes I realized I was in trouble. I had no idea what direction was "back." I could have been going in circles, or any other random pattern, but it was hardly likely I was going "back" in a straight line.

At moments like this, little imaginary people appear in your head, pointing fingers at you. One of them said, "I've told you a thousand times to take your compass with you!" Another said, "The last time this happened, you said it would never happen again." A third said, "You're really going to look like a first-class goat, you know. 'Cocky naturalist gets lost in the woods,' the headlines will read. You will never live this down!" And a fourth: "How long do you think it will be before you're missed?"

I tried for what seemed like a long time to decipher the land, to discover some textural or topographic clue that would lead me out. I saw light spots that could have been the power-line right-of-way, but weren't.

I saw open areas that could have been the cleared forest where I'd begun ... but weren't. It was pretty clear to me that there was only one good solution to this problem: I had to see the sun again. If I knew which way "south" was, I could certainly hit the power lines and from there I'd be home free.

I breathed a heartfelt prayer for an opening in the clouds, and waited. To my immense relief, within a few minutes a bright spot in the clouds appeared almost overhead. "Wait, don't be too sure," I thought. "It could be way off, just a thin spot, not the sun itself." But as I watched, for perhaps just five seconds, I could see the disc of the sun behind the clouds. I had it! My bearings! That was all I needed.

Now, knowing what was the right direction, I headed off that way, regardless of what my faulty memory of the terrain was telling me. Within about 20 minutes, through the trees I caught a glimpse of two parallel vertical lines in the distance, the legs of a power-transmission tower.


This wasn't the first time I'd been caught out in the woods or mountains without a compass. And on past occasions I had always told myself very seriously that I would never let that happen again. But here I had done it. And once again, I had been blessed with a painless solution.

ANY moralist worth his or her salt would use such an occurrence as a teaching story, a made-to-order parable. Surely a lesson was being taught to me here.

So what can I learn from this oft-repeated narrow escape? Well, one is to admit that I'm not nearly as bright as I'd like to think I am! I have a compass. Why don't I use it?!

Paul said in his letter to the Romans, "My behavior baffles me. That which I would do, I don't do." This kind of behavior has been going on for a long time. At least I'm in good company!

Another lesson is to realize that it seems as though life's big lessons get rerun for us slow learners. For this I am really grateful. But perhaps the most important debt of gratitude is reserved for the fact that, no matter what your religious beliefs might be, my little prayer was answered.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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