"Do you guys know how to get back on the Coastal Trail, going north?" I asked two hikers. I was getting desperate. I'd been hiking for about twelve miles on a hike that was supposed to be less than eight. I'd passed the stage of being curiously lost.
"Just follow that trail, and keep going north. You can't fail," one of the guys said with confident reassurance. Directions from a stranger are always soothing when one is lost—even if the directions make no sense at all. I followed a meager trail to the top of a steep hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The clear, brisk day revealed a drastic horizon that stretched forever but at that moment all I could see were my two feet and a trail that seemed suspiciously unofficial.
I screeched to a stop. The trail disappeared. Given the dubious nature of it, I was anticipating its demise, but I wasn't expecting it to vanish at the precipice of an 800-foot drop. I looked down and gasped. There was nothing but a sudden and painful death before me. A tiny beach, crashing surf, and jagged rocks were awaiting my next step. I'd read about fools like me in the newspaper. Someone is always falling to their death in the Marin Headlands. Now I knew how easy it was.
After the adrenaline coursed its way through my body I took a breath. Then I started to talk to myself aloud—never a good sign. I went back down the puny trail and found another two hikers. They had a map and seemed a bit more sane than the two mountain-goat hikers who'd long disappeared over a ridge after they'd disseminated to me their sage wisdom. "I'm looking for the Coastal Trail going north," I whined. The woman with the map looked in earnest for a solution.
"Well…” she started. "There's this tiny, little, dotted trail right here." The pain was instant and clear. At a fork in the trail some miles back I'd gone the wrong way. Now I would have to backtrack about three miles and go up-and-down and up-and-down a couple thousand feet in elevation. I grumbled to myself and the two women that were helping me. At least their advice was backed by irrefutable evidence.
"You still have about six hours of light left," the woman without the map snickered.
"Yup," I responded with a forced smile, grateful for the map and the bitter pill of truth. I sighed and began my trek. Several hours later I was back at my truck, its old seats feeling like a La-Z-Boy recliner. I sighed with relief and satisfaction. I'd hiked fifteen miles instead of eight—a worthy accomplishment. And so that's the way it is with forks in the trail. A fateful turn can lead one to bumpy adventures. Afterwards, with a bit of hindsight, one is grateful for the gained wisdom. A good story is worth a lot. The key is to appreciate the story while it is unfolding and not wait for perspective to remind us that life is good.