Many moons ago, at the age of 13, I went on a long day hike with a church group to a local woodland here in New England. The trail network winds around a large pond, generally near its perimeter, while a network of dirt roads threads the territory further beyond. I'd visited the area before, though I'd never before hiked the full loop that was on the day's agenda. Before long, another hiker about my age and I got out ahead of the main group, by our own choosing and without any resistance from the adult members of the party. It shouldn't have mattered, given that the trails were all well marked and we meant no mayhem. However, two factors came into play that proved to be game-changing that autumn day. The first was a category 1 hurricane which had hit the area several weeks prior. The second was my blinding sense of certainty that I knew an area of such size and scope that, in reality, no 13 year old kid could possibly grasp.
When we came to an area of heavy blowdown along the trail, conveniently there was a good dirt road running parallel to it. And so I quickly convinced myself and my hiking partner, out of sight or communication with the rest of the group, that we would leave the trail and instead hike the road. After all, the road would do much as the trail, I was certain, and both would end up back at the trailhead after circumnavigating the pond.
The road eventually reached a fork, and we went left, certain as I was - despite the pond no longer being in view - that a "series of lefts" would equate with a counter-clockwise loop around it. On and on we followed this road, hour upon hour, mile after mile, until the kid at my side no longer trusted my judgment that we were in fact bound for home base. "Not to worry" I assured him, as the road, however weary we were, was surely quicker than following the thicketed trail. Although by now pangs of self-doubt had begun welling up within me as well, dismissible mainly by an understanding that "we had come too far now to turn around." When at last we saw a sign welcoming us... to a different pond!, I realized the gravity of the circumstances. I knew at once just how far off track I'd taken us. My cavalier sense of ease over matters of navigation had now swung 180 degrees to notions of an unbridgeable, unresolvable impasse between our current location and our intended destination. And while reality was squarely in the middle of these two extremes, I panicked. I cried. And I worried the heck out of my hiking partner, who had been going along for the proverbial ride from the start and was now left merely to read my emotional cues and to fear whatever I feared.
Somehow though, from the throes of panic, a moment of extreme clarity emerged, a sense of being on auto-pilot and of knowing exactly what we had to do to ensure our safety. For this would be the day a young boy would learn of his survival instinct, what it felt like to have fear drive fear away in order to find a way out of harm's way. Against all odds, and without a hint of reservation from a naturally shy child, I flagged down a passing vehicle - improbably, a truck hauling a large horse trailer - and asked for a ride. Within an instant I was poised atop the truck bed trying to persuade my partner to join me, but he refused to do it. "My mom told me never to hitchhike," he explained resolutely. Mine most likely had as well, but running on adrenaline I was now blind to anything other than The Plan of Escape, and this, my survival auto-pilot had convinced me, was that plan unfolding. Ultimately the driver agreed to call park headquarters and we managed a more sobering trip back to our proper trailhead. By now I felt guilty and ashamed of the situation I had created, and to his credit the park ranger did his best to ensure those emotions would stick with me for a good while.
To our surprise, we arrived back at the vehicles before the rest of the party, and for a time we made like we'd keep our misadventure to ourselves. But of course with such a great story to share and the endorphins flying, that oath didn't last long and we were duly chastised later that evening. The group leaders were naturally concerned for our safety, and now angry with us, and responded with a toughened policy of staying together on future outings (we two were banned from any other hikes that fall). I learned, much like Ken on the North Country Trail, about the perils of certainty, the consequences of poor decision-making, and of the need to be situationally aware at all times, most especially when you lack a solid skill set as was the case for me back then. I also discovered something pretty incredible lurking inside of me, inside each of us, that rushes to our defense in a time of need, if only we can find a way to use it to our best advantage.