I am at home now, slowly warming up enough for a hot bath to be comfortable, sipping tea, looking forward to clean dry clothes, and catching up on calories and medication.

The only picture all day isn't of anything much; the photos are not the experiences.

The only picture all day isn’t of anything much; the photos are not the experiences.

I hit the trail at mid-morning with my hydration pack and emergency gear carefully checked off, map in a side pocket within easy reach. I felt utterly prepared for the hike ahead of me – new trails to explore, and a good plan for 6 to 8 miles of beautiful forested winter countryside, and considerable solitude along the way. I hopped off the bus with a smile at the trailhead most convenient to both mass transit and miles I had not yet walked. I crossed the street and headed up the trail – which in this case was rather literal, as the trail headed steeply upward, renewing my appreciation for my anti-shock hiking staff. I spotted the first snowflake as I neared the hilltop, and the drizzle carrying it along to the ground was quickly becoming more tiny snow flakes than drizzle. I wasn’t discouraged in the least, and visibility was not particularly impaired, except at a distance. There would be no distant vistas to view today. I walked on.

As I walked I contemplated how very prepared I felt when I departed for my hike – and how little my preparation seemed relevant in the present moment, unplanned snowflakes falling all around me. I considered this other solo journey I am taking – the one we each take, every one of us, through this wilderness territory called life; I am my own cartographer. Another way of saying that is – I don’t actually have a map. Yep. I’m making it up as I go along, aren’t I? Aren’t we all?

I turn the ideas on their heads a few times and consider things I do each time I hike to depart as well prepared as possible for all those many things that may come up along a journey, unplanned. Even the snow – I didn’t expect it, and in that sense I didn’t plan, but I did take my day pack, and checked my emergency gear quite carefully before I left, removing the Deet that isn’t needed in December and adding things that seemed more likely to be necessary for a winter emergency, then checking off my basics: a compact emergency shelter, bivy sack, an emergency blanket, first aid gear, water, fire – and my map. I hadn’t planned for snow – but I had done my best to plan for ‘whatever’ might come up that could find me out in the cold over night, and maybe lost or injured.

I hike solo most of the time, and being prepared is one of those things that is about more than me; my traveling partner relies on me to depart prepared to come home safely. Getting home safely may very well be dependent on preparation handled before I ever leave the house at all – and there’s no way to know in advance if this is the hike on which it will matter that I had my _____. With my injury, my PTSD, and the implied potential limitations of each, and both together, I take my time preparing for new trails. I study maps. I read trip reports by other hikers, and articles from the Forestry or Park service overseeing the area. I outline the route, and study alternate routes and connecting loops that may offer scenic opportunities also worth exploring. I make a plan, and share it with my partner. I pack, inventory my gear, re-pack, try it on for size, and double-check my choices against recent experiences in similar areas – I’ll ask myself what I have overlooked, more than once. I’ll ask friends to share stories of recent camping or hiking outings to glean likely circumstances I may not have considered from my own experience. When I am finally ready to put boots on the ground, I generally feel very well-prepared, and by day’s end sometimes find myself wondering why I ever bother to take some of the things I do – like an emergency shelter. Really? Even hiking a nearby park, wrapped entirely in suburbia? More than once I’ve laughed at myself for being over-prepared.

Some time after noon, the snow flakes had plumped to the fat fluffy sort that splat on impact, my glasses were no longer helping my vision, and I had removed them. Visibility – with or without my glasses – is about the same forward, as it is looking down at my feet, and the muddy trail beneath my feet is slippery – another opportunity to be very happy to have my hiking staff; I really need it as the trail turns, twists, and heads down hill. This is no time for photographs – and I had already determined some time ago that the wet cold was not ideal for camera or camera phone – I stay focused on the trail, a dark line ahead too muddy for snow to stick to. I stop at a trail crossing, rest a moment, check my map and finish the last of the still-hot coffee in my hydro-flask (another piece of gear to appreciate today). My hands are not cold; my gloves keep them warm and dry. My feet are not cold or wet; I chose my hiking boots with great care and they serve me well. My rain gear keeps most of the rest of me dry, too, but the flakes of wet snow have begun to sting my cold face, and I think of gear I don’t yet have that would do nicely right then, and even consider whether I am prepared, at any point, to admit I can’t proceed and take shelter. I breathe the winter air deeply and smile; if I need to set up an emergency shelter, I’m ready for that, too. I walk on.

I stood some wet tedious minutes waiting for the bus that would take me out of the woods. I exchange messages with my traveling partner so he knows I am safe, and heading home. I keep thinking about life; it’s a hell of a journey to have to take without a map, without ‘all the right gear’, without feeling prepared…without even the certainty that our experience is a shared experience that will be understood in the telling of the tale; we are solo-hiking through life, and we do it without a map, making it up as we go along, and hoping for the best. Hell – sometimes we start the journey without having even a destination in mind at all! It’s no wonder life can be so confusing, so surprising, so difficult sometimes.

The tea has taken the chill off me as I write. I smile, and think about the ‘gear’ I now ‘pack’ on my solo journey through this wilderness, life: mindfulness practices, meditation, a healthy approach to fitness and to food, an understanding of my physical needs day-to-day, and some ideas about what it takes to be the woman I most want to be, like emotional self-sufficiency, critical thinking, perspective, and an understanding that contentment is an excellent stepping stone to happiness, and more sustainable. I still don’t have a map – but this journey isn’t going to take itself, and it’s time to get going; the journey is the destination. The map is not the world. One year ends, another stretches out in front of me, an unexplored trail – it’s time to plan the next hike! 🙂