A leathery old cowboy named Slim taught me to find my way in the wilderness. He passed out worn compasses with flip-up sight wires and then gave hand-drawn maps to the group of boys surrounding him.
“The needle always points to magnetic north. That never changes.” Slim said.
Slim taught us to align the compass on the face of the map and take a sighting to find our way.
“Look through the wire and focus on a landmark in the distance.”
“What if there is no map?” someone asked
“If there is no map, make your own as you go, so you’ll know where you’ve been. Remember to look back every so often too, so you’ll recognize the trail on the way out.” Once we knew the basics, Slim partnered us up and passed out slips of paper with headings and distances.
“Follow these directions and you’ll find your next heading on another piece of paper.”
For the next hour we zig-zagged through trees and over ridges. When we got to one goal we took our bearings again and set out on a new heading. We visited every quadrant of the map and ended where we began.
“When you know where north is, you can go anywhere,” Slim said.
What is your true north? What is the one reliable value or truth that you can take your bearings from? What is most important to you?
If you know where north is, you can restore your sense of direction even if you lose your way.
Years ago I hiked to Elfin Lakes. The path ascended through the coastal forest with fir, spruce and ferns and emerged into the alpine where blooming heather waited for the cool of the evening to release its fragrance from its tiny flowers. I continued on just past the A-frame shelter that most make their destination and set up camp.
The peak of Garibaldi, part of the Ring of Fire that circled the Pacific and erupted through the west coast of North America jutted up just to my north. A mantle of snow still coated the dormant cone. Good thoughts come in places like that.
I began to meditate when a hundred junior high school students blew in with the fog and rain. They were loud, as adolescents should be, and I decided to break camp and head back down to the shelter at the half-way point. The fog thickened and extinguished the last of day’s light as I left. My headlight cast a small beam a few feet in front of my boots.
It was taking a long time to get to the lower shelter, longer than it should have. And I was breathing hard for someone on the way down. I paused to listen, and the sound of the wind in the valley was on my left. It should have been on the right. I slipped my backpack from my shoulders and rested it against my thigh while I searched for my compass. Bowing my head to cast light on the unerring needle I saw that while I was still on the right road, I was going the wrong way. Somehow, in the foggy dark, I had lost my way. I turned around, tucked my compass away and began again.
Later that night the lower shelter came into sight. I spread my modest mattress and sleeping bag on the table and descended from consciousness with the decision not to mountaineer in the dark again and a thankful thought for Slim.
Set your course by that which does not change.