Getting Lost in the Woods

Yesterday I accidentally ran a trail marathon.

It was a weird moment in which my personal life collided with my professional one in a roundabout way.  Because I teach environmental history, and I direct our Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative at the university, I am constantly aware of the huge range of experiences that people have in nature. And I am often uncomfortably aware of how pathetic my credibility is, as a nature person. Growing up, my sister was the nature person. I was more the book learnin’ type. Despite having written books about the history of the earth and environmental sciences, controversies about radioactive waste, and even an exploration of our “catastrophic” brand of environmentalism, I still feel like most of my colleagues have more street cred (nature cred?) than I do.

That's me at the top of Hydra trail. Photo taken by Bill Lear
That’s me at the top of Hydra trail. Photo taken by Bill Lear

There’s a famous Gary Snyder poem. You know the one? He says “learn the flowers.” True confession: I haven’t learned the flowers. Not even close. I have only recently gotten to the point where I am sort of comfortable explaining the difference between deciduous and non-deciduous trees. That’s it. Beyond that, I’m mostly a book-reading, game-playing, metal-listening, failed guitarist wannabe who found a life in academia.

So now that I’ve come clean I have to share what happened to me yesterday as I was running through the woods. Long story short, I got lost. It was stressful. There was no cell service, it was pouring rain. I went miles… many, many miles out of my way before finding myself in a spot that I recognized. And that spot was far, far from where I needed to be.  In retrospect, it’s funny. At the time, it was pretty disconcerting.

But I think it was also a valuable way to learn a couple of things about myself. One lesson is that I need to acknowledge that the way I interact with nature is much more real than I’ve given myself credit for. I log a lot of hours in the woods, running trails. I run these distances in preparation for running events (note I didn’t say races… that would be a bridge too far, as far as my abilities are concerned), but that is really just the proximate cause. I run long distances because I love running. Mostly in the forest. Sometimes I am “present,” sometimes my mind wanders. That’s who I am. I’m ok with that. That’s my most real interaction with things we typically associate with nature.

The other lesson from yesterday is that sometimes I can be a blithering idiot. Which of these two lessons is the more important, I will leave as an open question.

Over the years I’ve been complacent about the fact that there is an idiot living inside my brain. I have found him charming. In truth, I love this part of me, most of the time. It’s the reason I have a good sense of humor, that I don’t take myself too seriously, and that my younger daughter can say, “yes, I still love you daddy, but it’s just… you know… you make SO MANY MISTAKES!”

Well I made some mistakes yesterday. And frankly, I lost some of my love for the idiot.

Here are some details.

It started innocuously enough with me texting my friend Bill on Thursday: “Running long Saturday morning, about 20. Want to join for part?”  It’s a testament to Bill’s dedication that he said yes, because the weather report said it was going to rain hard. He wanted to get about 10. So I was grateful to have the company for the first leg.  Why did I want to run 20 miles in the rain? It’s a fair question. I’m no glutton for punishment. Contrary to what you might think from Hollywood, running long distance in the rain is not fun. It’s cold, it’s wet, and if you are on trails you are going to run through a lot of water and mud.  But I’m training for the McDonald Forest 50k in May, so I need to get some solid 20+ runs in.  I looked at the weekends ahead and saw that “run what you can” was in my calendar a lot. That’s my personal code for “it’s going to be crazy and there is no way you are going to be able to run, given your family and work responsibilities, but you don’t want to admit that to yourself yet.” So I knew I needed to get a long run in yesterday, in advance of my hectic weekends to come.

Bill and I had a great run. We both live in the same neighborhood bordering Chip Ross Park, which abuts the McDonald Forest. We went up Dan’s Trail to Dimple Hill for four miles, then ran up Hydra trail. I’d promised Harper a photo of the tree, so Bill took one with me in it. I had recently been reintroduced to this trail by some runners, and it’s an amazing spot at the top. There’s a tree up there that helps to explain the name of the trail!  You can do a figure-8 to get back to the main logging roads from there. Bill and I headed back via the Horse Trail. It was already raining, and pretty muddy. Bill slipped and fell coming down Horse, but it wasn’t too bad of a fall. It happens: that’s trail running.

Our conversation ranged across many things, from dermatology to history and everything in between (go ahead, imagine what is in between dermatology and history). But one thing Bill said to me was that he was glad he had someone with him who knew the trails. He usually sticks to what he knows, he said. That’s funny, I said, because I feel the same way. Having him with me is why I had the confidence to go up Hydra. I’d only been there a couple of times. I should have more confidence, but I just don’t, especially running alone.

Just bookmark that exchange for later.

Then we parted ways at mile 7 or so. He headed home. I had made myself a PB&J sandwich and so I ate half of it. I saw that I also had a Clif bar that I’d left in my pack sometime before. I was wearing my Camelbak for water, which I politely had avoided sipping in Bill’s view (he wasn’t carrying water).

I had been having some problems with foot pain. I’d bought a new pair of shoes, some green Brooks ASR shoes, and then I ran 17 last weekend, part of it with my friend Stuart. He’s a very considerate guy and he said a few times, “do you want to stop?”  I must have been doing some pretty melodramatic limping. I can’t be bothered to google it right now but it’s the pain in the second toe that happens to runners. So I went back to my old red ASRs this time, in case that was problem. The verdict: not sure.

Anyway, I headed toward the Lewisberg saddle. I fired up my iphone and listened to the Nerdist podcast, which helped pass the time. I’d downloaded two episodes. Listened to Chris Hardwick interview Samantha Bee, then another episode with Angela Bassett.  I ran the Nettleton loop, hitting the New Growth Trail, the Old Growth Trail, and some other side trails along the loop. I was pretty happy with myself by the time I got back to the saddle. I ate the rest of my sandwich. Yum!

I’d done about 15.5 miles, so my goal of 20 was in sight. Honestly, just running home from there probably would have done the trick.

But no.  I chose instead to run up the Ridge Trail, just to ensure I had an extra half mile. You don’t want to arrive home with 19.5,  because then what do you do? Run in circles for half a mile? Boring, right?

This was my first encounter of the day with the blithering idiot inside my head. So far, not a bad interaction. But it was the beginning of a series of inner dialogues. We all have that inner voice (right? right?). The problem is you never know if that inner voice is the confident, go-get-em-tiger, empowering, soul-releasing, inner voice; or if it is the “dude we should totally do that!!” inner voice that is really simply an idiot talking to you.

So I did the Ridge trail. Then I came to a crossroads.  To the left was a path I knew led home. To the right, a trail called Alpha. I had been on it before, and I knew it hooked up to other trails, but I couldn’t really remember exactly where it went. Last time I was on it, I was headed the opposite direction, doing the Mac 50k, with lots of other people and good trail markings. Thus beginneth another inner voice dialogue:

Maybe it hooks up to that road you were on earlier today when you came back from Hydra.

Nah, probably not. Let’s just go home. I’ve got to get back in time for Sophia’s swim team meet anyway.

But it won’t take long. You need to explore.

I really need to get back. I’ll get my 20 just running home from here. That’s more than I’ve done in a long time, and that’s what my body is ready for.

Why are you always so conservative? This is what separates you from real nature people. Real trail runners. See where that trail goes. You’ve got enough in the tank to find your way back if it goes nowhere.

And so I went. And for a while I congratulated myself on my genuineness… my self-worth… and the trail itself was beautiful. I wondered, why haven’t I done this trail before?

I started to get a little worried as the trail descended lower that I thought it should.  Losing elevation was a bad sign because I really only had downhill to go, getting home, and none of this was familiar.

Forget about it. Just run, take in the nature, and enjoy your podcast. Just listen to how Angela Bassett got into character for her role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. Man, can you believe she did theater while going to college at Yale?

Suddenly I found myself crossing a bridge, and I knew where I was. Shit. I’d been there with my daughter years ago, before I ever tried distance running on trails.  We’d gotten there from a trailhead that I normally never used (Sulphur Springs). I wasn’t where I needed to be.

Don’t turn back. You don’t want to go back up that hill.

But maybe going back up that hill is the responsible thing. I will be kicking myself for the mistake, but I don’t want to make it worse…

No, dude. Double-down on the mistake! Own it! Keep going and you’ll loop around somehow. 

That doesn’t make any sense. When I miss a turn while driving a car, I shouldn’t just keep driving–



So on I went. Mile 17.5.

Amazingly, I saw hikers and pulled out my earbuds to chat. “Amazingly” because it was pouring rain and pretty darned cold. Hey, I said, do you know if this leads to Dimple Hill? The man was affable and chatty, and he seemed to make a point of talking to me outside the comfort of an umbrella that was clutched by two women who seemed pretty unhappy to be there. But no amount of affability could change the fact that I was way off course. He suggested I keep going along the gravel road, and turn left.

“Don’t take the first left,” he said. “That’s just a path to nowhere. Make sure you take the second left.”

I thanked them and kept going, already cursing my stupidity. I was going to be late for the swim meet for sure. I pulled out my phone to see if Sara had texted me.

No service. Hmm.  I suppressed thoughts that if this were a movie, I was in the moment called “foreshadowing.” I hastily put the iphone back into my pack and continued listening to Chris Hardwick interview Angela Bassett. I’d slowed to a walk, and I realized how cold and wet I was. I needed to pick up the pace to stay warm.

Then I came to a fork in the road and the inner voices began again.

Oh, this must be where that guy said not to turn.

Yeah. But dude, can you really trust that guy? You’re way off course and this path goes LEFT, dude. You should really stay to the left.

No, but that man clearly said don’t turn here. It goes nowhere. Besides, it’s pouring. I should stay on the gravel road.

Dude, you are going to believe that guy? He was not a runner. He looked like a casual walker, at best. He probably wouldn’t know of a connector trail. Go left! It will connect back to where you need to be.

But he clearly warned me that I should not do it. He could not have been more clear. He said take the second left, not the first.


So I turned left. And at this point I think it’s fair to say that I probably deserved what came next.  Here was a guy who’d given me some advice on the trail, and I’d ignored it while also silently judging him.  So I ran down the trail and its conditions quickly deteriorated. It was grown over, it was muddy muddy muddy, and eventually I was running through mostly water, trying to ignore how cold my feet were. Every once in a while I would see a connector trail.

Well, there are connector trails going right and left. Should I take them?

Nah, just keep going! 


The rain continued. The podcast ended. I tried to get something else going on my iphone but every part of me was so soaked, and it was raining so hard, that the touchpad didn’t work. It was just me and my thoughts, the rain, the forest, and a realization that the situation was getting out of hand. I thought about my Clif bar, not out of hunger, but just, you know, assessing the situation.

The funny thing about paths that go nowhere is that there is rarely a point at which they give you a clear indication of ‘ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.” So by the time I realized that the overgrown, narrowing road was not going to widen again, I was past rationality.

If I turn back now, I will only have added two miles. Should I turn back?

Dude, what did I say! You don’t admit mistakes. You DOUBLE-DOWN on them and call it courage!

Ok. Let’s see where it goes.

I got about a mile and a half down that path and it dead-ended. There was a slight hint of a trail that my idiot self thought might be a connector, but it petered out in so many directions that I realized it was probably not a trail frequented by humans at all. I turned back, working my way under and around branches. Then I started thinking about cougars. And about the cold. And the fact that if something happened to me, on this non-path off of an abandoned road that everyone else knew was a dead end….

I headed back. I said out loud, as if to vanquish my idiot self, “you are going to get to the gravel road and you are going to stay on it.”

I was wearing my Garmin so I’ve had a chance now to get online and see where I was. It’s pretty embarrassing. After every crest in the road, I assumed that I would be dumped back to a familiar crossroad at the top of a well-known hill (Dimple Hill), and I would just have three more miles from there to get home. I was so wrong. I have no orienteering skills. At all. I kept thinking, wow, I was aiming for 20, but I’m going to get 21.  But… why does this road keep going up?  Doesn’t it know that I want to go home? Holy crap, where the heck am I ?!?!

I finally found a well-maintained gravel road that had tire tracks on it, and I can’t express the gratitude and relief that this provided. I followed it downhill.  Down, down, down.

At the same moment that I hit 21 miles, I arrived at a place that bewildered me. Because I recognized it. It was a trail sign pointing toward McCulloch peak, but I was at the bottom. I was about a mile or so from the Oak Creek trailhead. And if you aren’t a local, you don’t know that this means I had put myself on the far side of Dimple Hill, not the side that I lived on.  Not only was I a good five miles from home, I was on the wrong side of the mountain, so to speak.

The rain had let up a little. I checked my cell phone. Bars! Yay. I called Sara. Laid out the options. Sorry I’m going to be late, I said. I got lost, I said. I could run down to the parking lot, about a mile away, and you could pick me up with the kids, I suggested.  Or I could run home and come to the swim meet separately.

The conversation didn’t last long. I was going to come separately. I stood there for a bit wondering what to do.

I should probably run down to the trailhead and then try to get home by road. Flatter, safer option.

Dude, what?!

It’s at least a two mile climb from here to the top of Dimple. I’m pretty exhausted. I’ve been out here for five hours already.

But you’ve got a Clif Bar, you’ve got water left in your pack, and your iphone is working again! Put on some rock and roll and do this!


So I started up the hill. Cautiously, at first, giving myself a chance to change my mind.  Raining again. I slipped my hands out of my drenched gloves and tried, tried for the love of all that is holy, to open the Clif Bar packet. And I cursed their names, those packet designers. I thought evil thoughts about them. I consigned them to oblivion, hoped for a special place in hell, etc. But I finally managed to get it open. All was forgiven. And I patiently ate the bar, sipped what felt like the last of my water, and (what do they say?) girded my loins in preparation for the next five miles.

The rest of the run was pretty uneventful. I listened to Orange Goblin and Baroness, and slogged my way up the hill. I knew where I was, at least. The rain came and went, and I balled up my hands inside my gloves, never quite able to get them warm. I was chafing in all the wrong places. But I made it to the top and yelled out “can I get some downhill please!!!!”

And then I ran three miles downhill to my house.

I saw Bill’s wife, Jen, on the trail on the way back. She was headed out to get 15 miles, and was surprised to see me still out on the trail. I was surprised to be there.

The funny thing is that I ended up coming down the home stretch, doing some calculations.

Dude, you are going to get home with 25.7 miles today.


Dude, you should totally add some mileage on the way back!

I am already super-late.

Dude but if you don’t get 26.2 you can’t call it a marathon! Who cares if you are late! It will be epic!

I want to get to Sophia’s swim meet.

For once my inner dialogue didn’t bend to the idiot’s will. I didn’t in fact run a marathon on Saturday. I did 25.8 miles, and I hopped in the shower, then got my butt to the swim meet. I missed warm-ups but I was there in time to cheer on my girl while she put her own hard work to the test. She was amazing.

I will probably never “learn the flowers.” And I can’t claim to have faced true danger yesterday. I had food and I had water. And I’d run long distance before, so I was psychologically prepared to roll with the punches on the trail. But maybe next time I’ll make sure someone is with me before I go off into the unknown.  Does that make me less credible as a nature person?

Maybe. Those comforts of home are nice… that shower felt pretty good.  I’d like to say that at least I exorcised the demon of my idiot self. But I didn’t. Because actually he comes in handy sometimes, as I learned toward the evening.

Was my nature experience legit? Am I like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant?

Totally, dude. I mean, think about it. You didn’t even turn on the electric blanket tonight!

That’s true.

Damn right it’s true. You owned those trails today, brah. You ran a trail marathon. On accident. How many people can say that?

Everything to the left of the blue dot was a mistake.
Everything to the left of the dot was a mistake.