HACK / MAKE

Navigating Unknown Territory

This weekend, exactly a year from my arrival to New York, I felt the need to get away from the city. I took a train out of dodge and went backpacking. I knew where I was leaving from and where I was planning on staying the night but in between I didn’t know exactly how I’d come and go.

I found my way through Penn Station, connected on to my final destination, and found the pathway from the tiny, side of the road train stop to the trailhead where I would disown the city for a couple of days.

As I made my way from the red-blazed trail onto blue, then yellow and back on red, I realized something. “For this being the wilderness, these trails are really well marked.” See, there are other people who come here more often and have already blazed a trail. They’ve left a clear path, clean it up after storms, and make sure it’s well marked so it’s easy to follow. They even have maps so you can plan your trip or not get lost along the way.

I had gotten from my apartment, the underground maze of the subway, and a beehive of people in Penn Station the same way I would get through the bush to my campsite.

I have my way to work memorized but I don’t know the way from the uptown A subway into Penn Station to connect to the train I have to catch. The station is busy and a bit overwhelming but if you remember to look up pretty often you’ll notice signs pointing you in the direction you need to go. There are people who posted these signs because they knew the way and knew you would need a hand.

Through these backcountry trails, it’s a lot less busy—practically desolate. The lack of bustle, people to follow, and crowd to blend into can be intimidating and make you feel lost and alone. Yet, if you keep your head up you’ll keep seeing the trail blazes along the way, marking your path. It’s smart to carry a map, to plan your way ahead of time, and know the mileage but plenty of people get along fine just looking for the next marker.

Sometimes you’ll be blazing your own trail. You’ll be in a place where no one has ever been before and you have no one to follow. It’s easy to lower your sight to what’s just in front of you. It’s scary to look much further ahead than your next step. But to find your way around the wilderness like they have for hundreds of years—to bushwhack, blaze a trail, orienteer and pioneer—you use a compass to find a landmark in the right direction ahead of you, your bearing, and then you keep your head up and walk to that place. You need to keep an eye on what’s in front of you so you don’t trip on rocks or step on snakes but you keep looking up to that spot on the horizon, your bearing, your true direction, your destination, and keep heading that way.

There are directions posted all around us. Remember to look up and look out for the signs.

Chances are that wherever you’re planning on going—with your career, your hobby, your relationship—someone has been there before. They’ve left a trail marked and all you have to do is keep your head up, look for the signs, and ask if you are heading in the right direction. There might even be a map. Someone knew that you would need a hand finding your way so they drew out the directions for you already. If you don’t know the map exists because you haven’t searched for it or were too proud to open up the map you had in your hands, you’re losing out of the knowledge and experience of people who’ve blazed a trail ahead of you.

Moving through unknown territory is an endless loop. You look up to make sure your steps are in the right direction then you look down to make sure your step is safe and secure. You don’t want to step on loose ground or something that might bite you. Too much looking down and you lose your bearing. Too much looking up and you might step on something you regret. But all along the way you use the markers that other people have left behind for you. Take advantage of the wisdom and experience that other have and passed along because they knew you would need it.

You’ll get lost if you don’t.

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