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On the western side of Bishop Pass, our campsite before it was shrouded in smoke from the faraway fire; Photograph by Ryan Bradley

When Where You’ve Been Isn’t on a Map

Introducing Way Finding, a new column about our sense of wild places

“Where did you come from?” The woman was small, no older than 30, I’d guess, in a big floppy hat and holding a tall walking stick, making her appear, for a moment, wizardly.

She’d passed my companions without saying a word, and when she spoke to me, she did so quietly. I wasn’t certain she’d said anything at all, and so I stopped and looked at her, searching for her face beneath that floppy hat. “Where did you come from?” she said again.

I gestured vaguely behind me, back down the trail toward the San Joaquin River. We were in California’s John Muir Wilderness, just north of Kings Canyon National Park on the Piute Canyon Trail, on a four-night loop through the High Sierra. That’d been the plan, anyway. There were three of us. My two companions trudged on ahead. We were heading, vaguely, east; the wizard woman was heading west.

But these are broad designations, useful for maps but not in the moment, when two hikers meet on the trail. Where did we come from? It was a hard question to answer.

Twenty-four hours earlier we’d been caught in a September storm. The rain had quickly turned to hail, then light snow, and while we scrambled along boulder fields beside alpine lakes, working our way toward the Lamarck Col—the quickest way out from within the tall peaks—snow began to fall in earnest. We popped a tent in a flat patch among the boulders, huddled in our sleeping bags, snacked, and peeked out at the ever worsening storm and up at the ever-whited-out scramble over the top of the mountains: our chosen route out.

The safe and right decision was to backtrack several miles and a thousand feet down to Evolution Valley. But maybe the storm would pass quickly, as storms often do at 12,000 feet.

An hour passed. We peeked out from the two-man tent again and saw the snow thick and blanketing the boulders, saw the darkening sky and the route up to our way out: indecipherable. We silently packed our soaking gear, then slipped and scrambled back down to the valley below as the snow turned again to hail, then rain. We were shivering, practically running now, toward McClure Meadow. There was a ranger station there, we knew. Perhaps we could dry out our bags enough to sleep without shaking.

The ranger was an old-timer—he’d worked in parks for more than 40 years. He let us in and lit a fire in his wood stove, then my companions left to look for a campsite nearby while I draped our sleeping bags over a clothesline near the heat and watched them drip and steam. The ranger left for a walk to check on other campers before the sun set. As I sat in the tiny cabin, stripped of my wet clothes, warming myself by the stove, I saw tacked above the sink a popular haiku by the poet Mizuta Masahide:

Barn’s burnt down —
I can see the moon

Alone, warmed, and reading this, I burst out laughing—the purest, longest laugh I’d had in years. The next day, we woke up before sunrise to more rain, our bags wet again, and decided to hike all the way out, but the long way: 26 miles.

We were halfway through, nearly, when the woman asked me where I’d come from, and the past 24 hours of events—the storm, the scramble, the laugh—ran through my head. I didn’t tell her any of it except that we’d come far and still had a long way to go. She wanted to know about the fire, which was sensible. There was a wildfire burning up Kings Canyon, and though it was distant, the smoke crept through and up the canyons during the day until, by late afternoon, the air could be hazy and rough to inhale.

But we were high enough and far enough north for the fire not to matter much. I told her that if she could play it by ear that might be best. I was thinking of the storm and how wilderness has a way of dashing best laid plans. She said her route was flexible, nodded at me in thanks, and moved on. And so did I, shuffling to catch up with my friends.

I considered taking out the map when the woman had asked me where I’d come from but thought better of it. Like people, every map has its own agenda and perspective on the world. Most are very good at keeping you on the road or trail or designated route but are often at odds with reality. Maps are static. Even constantly updated, digital maps—particularly the most data-driven maps—are very good at getting us from point A to B, but bad at giving us a broader sense of where we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and the ever changing nature of the world around us. The map I had for our Sierra loop shows no trail up to the Lamarck Col, nor the flat patch where we hid from the storm. I can’t locate the spot, either, where the wizard woman appeared. It’s somewhere along a seven-mile incline toward the Piute Pass.

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Just north of Muir Pass, we made camp at high elevation, hoping to avoid the fire smoke; Photograph by Ryan Bradley

Plenty of our world remains unmapped too: slums, war-torn regions, the seafloor. An island near New Caledonia that appeared in Australian atlases and on Google Earth but, once visited, did not exist. Sandy Island may have been an error or may have disappeared in shifting, rising seas. Who knows? You can’t until you go there.

For a while I thought I’d burst out laughing at Masahide’s poem because of our brush with the blizzard. The barn burning down had been our dashed plans: We’d escaped a bad, cold spot and made the right, safe choice, and in the little warm cabin I could better appreciate all these small comforts.

But now I’ve come to think the poem is about how our human constructs—whether it be a barn or a map or a smartphone—can so quickly be proven in-durable and false in the face of the natural world, a world that destroys with fire and lights the night with the moon. Even if I’d taken out the map, in that moment, I’m not sure what good it would’ve done. Where I’d come from, I now realize, couldn’t be described on a map and wouldn’t have been of any use to her, anyway.