Getting There

Sometimes it really is about the journey instead of the destination

Craig Axford
Jun 28, 2018 · 6 min read
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Shields Lake, Vancouver Island, BC

Having started my hike just above sea level, at about two thousand feet the summit seemed much higher than it actually is. I took a moment to reconcile the subjective experience with the objective reality before giving up with a shrug. The peak was a dramatic and pleasing break from the enclosed forest I had ascended from. Rocky and mostly bare, with only an island of stunted wind swept fir trees and an old unused radio tower off to one side standing like the ruin of some long forgotten civilization, the view was clear in all directions.

It took only a couple of minutes to circumnavigate the mountaintop. A shallow depression in the rock on its northern side provided the only water supply, complete with an armada of water striders frantically skimming the surface. A small submarine fleet of larvae was submerged just beneath them racing the evaporative power of sun and wind to become airborne. The sediment-rich deep end of the pool supported a small abbreviated stand of cattails, making the shallow bowl a nearly ideal model of the larger ponds hidden below between the surrounding hills. It was even possible to imagine that an overnight stay might produce a few croaks as proof that amphibians had somehow scaled this mountain too.

There were much larger and more prestigious puddles around — ones both permanent and named. From my perch two of them were visible, and I knew at least two more were lurking somewhere to the south. It was the largest of that pair I had come looking for. But, having started the day on the wrong path I ended up here, atop Empress Mountain, instead.

A map had been downloaded onto my phone, which also provided access to GPS, but these were merely precautions and had so far been stubbornly ignored. The only map I referred to was the one I had committed to memory and steadily amended with each new visit to the area. In this way my mental chart was becoming, hopefully, progressively more accurate. However, on this day, as with others before it, I had failed to find my target. Successfully locating the area’s highest peak and adding a few more details to the mental map being drawn between my ears was just another in a growing list of consolation prizes.

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Wayfinding is the term anthropologists use when referring to skills now most commonly found within indigenous cultures, and even there to a diminishing degree. It represents knowledge built up about a landscape over lifetimes and passed on from generation to generation. GPS technology and Google Maps don’t require that kind of learning, providing a far more accessible shortcut that’s difficult to resist. By relying upon these technologies I feared I would miss the delicate variations of a place that I was intentionally striving to discover on my own terms. Efficiency, as usual, was the enemy of intimacy.

Certainty is a trickster. Having become sure of gravity and time, relativity comes along to overturn the Newtonian apple cart. Just beginning to reconcile ourselves to relativity, quantum mechanics dropped onto the stage as if out of nowhere and began playing dice with the universe. Knowledge isn’t elusive but anything like omniscience apparently is. With each new bit of information we draw closer to completeness but, in the fashion of Zeno’s famous paradox, every narrowing of the gap by half still leaves a little distance between us and the finish line.

Travelers through space are also time travelers. Even our best maps and databases are only snapshots. The map does not change with the seasons, but the trail does. What is impassable in winter or after a heavy rain is clear and easy after a week under the summer sun. The edible plants growing along a route change throughout the year, but a paper or electronic guide will likely offer only general information about these that misses the nuances of any particular location or circumstance. A hiker approaching fifty who last journeyed down the same path in his teens may find himself muttering under his breath ‘I don’t remember this being so difficult.’

Would knowing precisely, give or take a foot or two, where I was standing when I arrived on the summit of Empress Mountain have added anything to the experience? The answer consistently returns negative. Indeed, the exact longitude and latitude mean nothing outside the context, while the context draws nothing from the degrees, minutes, and seconds of my coordinates. The memory of the experience remains vivid enough to be relived at will, while the numbers conveying my location on that day are the stuff of memorization: a burdensome chore masquerading as an objective measure of the experience. Even scientists that routinely find such information useful outsource the remembering of it to a machine or notebook as though they were recording a stranger’s phone number in their contact list. But ask them about their experiences in the field and they become like ancient storytellers sitting around the campfire.

Not long before reaching the cutoff to the summit I encountered four humans hiking with a black lab — the only five creatures not native to the forest I had seen in at least three hours. Already suspecting I had taken the wrong path and that, once again, I had fallen short of my goal of reaching Shields Lake, I asked them if I was headed in the right direction. “Shields Lake?” one of them repeated while the group exchanged quizzical glances. There were shrugs all around, while the Labrador retriever wagged her tail vigorously as if recognizing the word lake. “No. You’re about 15 minutes from Empress Mountain though,” one woman offered, clearly hating to see me go home without some kind of accomplishment. Another added hopefully that she thought it was possible to get to Shields Lake from here, but it was getting late and any confirmation of that hypothesis would have to wait for another day.

My walks through the Sooke Hills, like earlier hikes into Utah’s Wasatch Mountains just a few minutes up the road from my childhood home and past trips into the desert Southwest, are feasts of data remembered best through the stories created in its learning: narratives of chance encounters, risky climbs, or forbidden youthful midnight walks through the darkness into the mouth of a nearby canyon to watch August’s annual thunderstorms roll across the valley with flashbulb intensity.

One hike later I finally found Shields Lake. At my first swimming hole, someone had placed a small plastic bench with just enough room for my backpack and me to rest comfortably together. It was an odd if a welcome token of civilization to find miles from the nearest pavement and seemed a fitting reward for the time spent exploring the various paths and old logging roads woven into these hills. Stripping off my clothes I dove in, scaring the salamanders taking turns rising from the bottom for air. The cold stored up over the winter months had not yet yielded to the power of a higher sun with more time on its hands, making it a short if satisfying swim. Drying naturally on the bench, my mind slowly logged everything that had gone into the moment. Certainty demands precision, while completeness thrives on experience’s zigs and zags. As with life itself, I had not known exactly where I was going but was unlikely to soon forget how I had gotten there.

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