There’s an old poetic saying: not all who wander are lost.
I’m not so lucky. On a Sunday afternoon in late May, somewhere inside a 17,000-acre stretch of West Virginia wilderness, I’m wandering. And yes, I’m horribly, undeniably, exceptionally lost.
It’s north of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and humid to boot. My ankles twist as I clamber over the slippery, bowling ball-sized rocks that litter the trail. My 30-pound backpack has rubbed my shoulders raw. The flies are relentless. I have no compass, no map, and, of course, no cellphone signal. The other campers in my group are outside walkie-talkie range. It’s just me and Greg—who’s not exactly a survivalist.
“Un-fucking-believable!” he mutters, yanking his calf out of a deceptively deep, thick pool of mud that lets out a comical, suction-induced pop.
I step over the puddle and stifle a laugh—one of those involuntary reactions you have when things look so grim that your body simply can’t conjure any other response.
“As long as we stay on the path,” I offer, “I think we’ll be okay.”
As the words leave my mouth, I’m not sure I believe them. I take a sip from the rubber hose connected to a pouch of water in my backpack, and my lips pucker. It’s empty.
My heart pounds as images flash in my head: newspaper headlines about two lost hikers; my wife, frantic and sobbing; rescue helicopters circling the pine trees overhead; Greg nursing his waterlogged, rotting foot; and me squeezing mud through my T-shirt, desperately trying to collect something—anything—half-drinkable.
“Well, I’m out of water,” I say to Greg.
“I’ve got a little bit left,” he replies.
Translation: he’s not sharing.
This wasn’t exactly how I expected a two-day camping trip to unfold. I’d spent weeks assembling a dream team of camping buddies.
There was Sam, an old college friend and doomsday-level survivalist, a book-smart Boy Scout who’s too sweet for his own good—exactly the kind of person I’d want next to me in a foxhole.
Then there was Mike, a friend from my monthly game-night get-together, who’s the spitting image of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, with a penchant for heavy metal T-shirts, comic books, and deep-dish pizza.
There was Jack, another game-night recruit who’d hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back. The patriarch of our group, he’d married early and had three kids shortly thereafter. While he’s prone to dad jokes, he runs a tight ship at home: an oversized, color-coded chalkboard listing the kids’ chores looms prominently over his dining room table.
Last, there was Greg, a former coworker and California-bred hipster with a thick mop of blond hair. A history nerd, amateur philosopher, and hopeless romantic, I’d never seen him wear any shoes other than Chuck Taylors.
I was proud of myself for making this happen. With each of us in our 30s and juggling some combination of obligations to work, partners, and children, finding a weekend when everyone was available—and willing—to make the three-hour journey from Washington, DC, to Dolly Sods, West Virginia, felt like a herculean task. Plus, most of the team had never met each other before, so I was excited to see what kind of chemistry would unfold.
In a group text chat I’d created two weeks earlier, Sam and Jack had immediately hit it off, one-upping each other with suggested hiking routes and regaling us with tales of their previous excursions.
Don’t get too carried away, you two, I texted back. My hiking limit is five miles a day. But the messages from Sam and Jack continued. Hundreds of them. Maps. Weather reports. Links to strange blogs about how to turn raw venison into jerky.
Well, I think we’ve figured out our carpool arrangements! I wrote. You two were meant for each other.
When the five of us rendezvoused at a ramshackle Honduran restaurant for lunch, several miles from the trailhead, and laughed as we held steaming tortillas over our mouths to catch dripping globs of cheese, I silently congratulated myself. What a perfect, ragtag bunch, I thought.
“Thanks for planning this,” Jack said as we pulled up to an empty ski lodge near the trailhead. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to today. I really needed a break from the kids.”
“You bet,” I smiled. “If all goes well, maybe we’ll make this a regular thing.”
As we summited a dry ski slope and made a sharp turn into a barely visible gap in the tree line, a vibrant landscape unfolded in front of us. Pine trees stretched skyward, scattering shadows on the mossy ground below. Streams trickled alongside our path as birds called out to one another overhead. Sam and Jack took the lead as we walked single file, shuffling over boulders and ducking under stray branches, passing stories and jokes down the line. Four miles in, we scrambled up a hill to a small meadow.
“This is it, guys,” Jack announced, dropping his backpack onto the soil. “Home.”
Greg spilled the contents of his tent bag on the ground and stared cluelessly at the tangled mess of fabric and poles. I pitched my own tent while Mike carefully built a fire, crafting a tiny pyramid of dry pine needles before setting it ablaze with a cigarette lighter.
Suddenly, Skittle-sized hail began to fall. We scrambled to find as much dry kindling as we could and passed it to Mike, who cupped his hands protectively over the trembling flames.
“Time to break out the poncho,” Jack announced, pulling a big blue plastic sheet from a sandwich bag. “I haven’t used this thing since the Appalachian Trail.” He gave it a vigorous shake, and a pungent smell filled the air.
“Ugh, that thing reeks!” Mike exclaimed.
“Smells like hot vomit!” Sam giggled.
I smiled. “Poncho? More like vom-cho!”
We couldn’t stop laughing.
After the hail stopped, Mike, Jack, and Greg stripped off their wet shirts and dangled them on sticks over the now-roaring fire. As they crouched in the dark and carefully assembled their s’mores, the flames casting a red glow over their bodies, they looked more like cavemen than 30-something urbanites who spent 40 hours a week behind a computer.
Soon the sky grew dark, and thousands of stars appeared overhead—more than you could ever see in the city. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved stargazing. “That one there, that’s Vega,” I said, pointing to a particularly bright dot. “And that cloudy band is the Milky Way.”
“Amazing,” Sam marveled, wiping a hunk of marshmallow off his cheek.
Then, I paused. I looked at my four friends, together, and took a mental snapshot. This is something special, I thought to myself. This is what camping—what living—is all about.
After a moment, Greg broke the silence. “Guys, we’d better turn in,” he announced. “There’s a storm rolling through in the afternoon, and we’ll get caught in it if we’re not up early.”
I glanced around. There were three tents—Greg’s, Sam’s, and mine—and five of us.
“Mike, where’s your tent?” I asked.
“Sam told me to leave it behind,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Said we’d shack up to avoid carrying extra weight.”
“Well, Jack and I are bunking together,” Sam said. Of course they were.
Greg and I looked at our pint-sized tents, then shot each other a sidelong glance. Mike and I were close, but not share-a-tent close.
“What’s the big deal?” Jack said in the kind of moralizing, shaming tone that only a father can deliver. “I thought we were friends here.”
My insides tumbled as a flood of emotions washed over me. Embarrassment. Anger. Confusion. None of which I had time to process. “We are friends,” I stammered. “Mike, you’re with me. In the future, just keep me in the loop.”
I’d defused an awkward situation, but still felt uneasy. As Mike and I scrunched our bodies into my tent, bending our legs to fit, I wondered whether I’d be able to sleep at all.
When Mike began snoring 15 minutes later, I knew I wouldn’t.
The next morning, achy and bleary-eyed, the five of us sat around the charred remains of our campfire in monk-like silence, our metal spoons scraping the bottoms of our tiny cups of oatmeal. I took a deep breath, and exhaled. Any lingering awkwardness, it seemed, had evaporated with the fresh mountain air.
We gathered up our supplies and shouldered our packs for the next leg of the trek, to a scenic overlook about a mile away. Then, we’d take the trail we’d taken in back to our cars parked at the lodge.
That’s how I found myself in one of the worst predicaments of my adult life, navigating unknown wilderness on a sweltering summer day with nothing propelling me forward but frustration, intuition, and fumes.
“You’ve been good to us, campsite!” Greg said heartily, giving an affectionate slap to a nearby pine tree. “I dare say, I’d do this again.”
Of course you would, I thought to myself. At least you got a good night’s sleep.
As we pushed onward, the brush grew thicker, the thorns thornier, and the path narrower. Under the heat and our heavy packs, minutes felt like hours. Slowly, the minutes became hours. Sam, leading the pack, squinted at his handheld GPS navigator. “I think we took a wrong turn,” he muttered. “My bad.”
We stopped to catch our breath. Mike took a seat on a nearby log and grimaced as he began to massage his knees.
“I’m calling it, guys,” I said, wiping the sweat from my forehead. “We’re lost.”
Jack poked at the GPS. “We could take the same trail back to the lodge,” he said, “but I’m also seeing a scenic route that’ll get us there. It’s only five miles, and there’s a stream we can dip our feet in halfway through. How’s that sound?”
The rest of us nodded, and we continued along.
About a half mile in, the trail got steep. Forty-five-degree-angle steep. As the path grew rockier, I could feel the stones jabbing through my boot soles. I leaned forward to shift the weight of my pack and looked back at Greg, who was trailing the line, red-faced and scowling. Up ahead, Jack, Sam, and Mike were growing smaller in the distance.
“Slow down, guys!” I yelled. “This isn’t exactly what I signed up for.”
Jack turned around and flashed a grin. “You’ve just gotta make peace with it!” he laughed.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. I couldn’t think of much I’d rather do less than hike Jack’s trail of misery in the pouring rain. So when we reached the stream, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
“Tell you what,” I said to Jack, Sam, and Mike, trying—and failing—to mask my frustration. “You three cool your feet, and Greg and I are gonna keep going. You’re faster than us anyway. You’ll catch up.”
“Take one of these,” Sam said, handing me a walkie-talkie.
“Chris, do you copy? Over!” he giggled into the other.
“Yeah. Copy,” I said flatly, before turning and walking away.
That’s how I found myself in one of the worst predicaments of my adult life, navigating unknown wilderness on a sweltering summer day with nothing propelling me forward but frustration, intuition, and fumes. Hours seemed to pass. Finally, another hiker appeared: a middle-aged man with a full beard and a stockpile of camping gear on his back—clearly, a more seasoned hiker than us.
“The lodge,” Greg whimpered. “Is it close?”
The man’s eyes widened. “The lodge? You boys hiked far. I can’t say. It’s not behind you, that’s for sure.”
Just then, Sam’s voice crackled over the walkie-talkie. “Chris, Greg? Do you copy? We’re close. Just hang tight, we’ve got an injured crew member here. Over.”
Eventually, Sam and Jack emerged from the woods, Mike hobbling behind on Sam’s trekking poles. One of Mike’s knees had given out, and now Jack was carrying his backpack in addition to his own.
“Get this,” Mike said, shaking his head. “The GPS says we hiked 12 miles. Not five. Twelve.”
Sam and Jack were grinning ear to ear. Greg and I weren’t.
“Where’s the lodge?” Greg spat. “I want to get out of here.”
Jack pointed through the trees. “About a mile that way.”
Dark clouds began to form overhead. As we broke through the forest and began our descent down to the lodge, the pitter-patter of rain quickened into a downpour. As the sky turned gray, the trees and streams seemed to lose their initial luster. And as my vision began to blur from the combination of sweat and rainwater, a part of me didn’t care if I ever saw another tree, or rock, or bird again. In that moment, all I wanted was a cold glass of water and a long, long nap.
Greg and I reached the cars first, and turned to see Jack, Sam, and Mike standing under the lodge awning a hundred feet back. I called Sam on my cellphone. “What’s the holdup?”
“Just drying off. We’ll be there in a minute.”
“We’re ready to go. Do you want to take Mike home?”
Sam’s voice hardened. “Chris, you and Greg brought him here.”
My patience was running thin. Greg’s, however, had long expired. He forcefully shifted the car into gear and wheeled around to the lodge entrance, where once again, Jack was grinning. Confrontation isn’t my strong suit, but now, my patience was expiring. “What’s so funny?” I snapped.
“I just think it’s hilarious how upset you two are right now,” Jack replied, folding his arms smugly.
“You said we’d be taking a five-mile detour, not a 12-mile one,” I shot back. “Not everyone has hiked the Appalachian Trail. You put all of us in danger. Just look at Mike.”
“Don’t blame the trail,” Mike said flatly, wobbling on a trekking pole and falling squarely on his butt with a thud. I said nothing.
“If you two wanted an easier hike, you could’ve spoken up in the group text,” Sam interjected.
“Sam, I did. And nobody except Jack was reading your ten thousand text messages,” I replied.
“The worst part about this,” I added, turning to Jack, “is that for some reason you think this is funny. Nobody’s laughing except you. Read the room.”
Jack opened his mouth to speak, but Greg had heard enough. With Mike now settled in the backseat, Greg floored the gas pedal. Gravel crunched as the car peeled out of the parking lot, and Jack and Sam grew smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.
For the next three hours, as night fell and rain pelted the windshield, Greg, Mike, and I sat in deafening silence.
Back home, I drop my pack on the living room floor and throw off my muddy boots. I ravenously devour a steaming Chipotle burrito and take long, breathless swigs from a bottle of Gatorade—and when I finish it, another. I wash the dirt, sweat, and rainwater off myself in a piping hot shower, apply lotion to my raw shoulders, and rub my sore feet. Then, with what little mental and physical energy I have left, I drag my wrecked body into bed, pull the comforter over my shoulders, and fall into a long, deep sleep.
When I wake up the next morning, it’s, for a brief, wonderful second, in a state of total obliviousness to what’s transpired over the last 48 hours—right before my aching calves jolt me back into reality. My stomach sinks. How did it come to this? I wonder. How did something that began so beautifully fall apart so horribly?
A mess of thoughts swirls in my head: Was my frustration justified? Did I push back too hard, or was I too soft? Had I lost Jack, Mike, and Sam forever? If I did, did I care? And if I hadn’t, were these friendships worth keeping? Worth salvaging? Could I forgive being put in a situation where I could’ve been seriously injured or worse? I’m in the center of an emotional hurricane and can’t tell up from down.
Fortunately, I’m one of the privileged few who happens to be married to a therapist—no stranger to managing interpersonal conflict and parsing rational thoughts from irrational ones. “I wish I’d pushed back harder,” I tell her, recounting my confrontation with Jack. “I wish I’d stood up for myself more.”
“It sounds like you did,” she says. “What would you have done differently?”
“Maybe I would’ve been more direct. Gotten angrier.”
“Babe, that’s not you.”
A few days later, an email shows up in my inbox. It’s from Jack.
We’re friends, it begins, and I value our friendship. I would never intentionally put you in danger, ridicule, demean, or belittle you.
He goes on to talk about how he loves hiking, how he rarely gets the chance to step away from fatherly duties and spend time with friends who aren’t parents, and why that meant he was ready to squeeze every ounce out of the trip.
I openly admit Sam and I completely hijacked the trip planning, the letter continues. We were in an echo chamber where every idea we had was a good one. My fault was assuming everyone else agreed with our plan. I sincerely hope you can look back on this trip with a smile, and occasionally tease me for it. I hope vom-cho becomes a part of our routine vernacular. And I hope we can learn something deeper about each other outside of game night and maintain our friendship.
I write back. I tell Jack I appreciate the email, that it took courage. I tell him I understand where he’s coming from and accept his apology. Nobody’s perfect, I write. Not you, not me. Things can go awry under the best of circumstances. In the end, I chalk up our disagreement to a combination of overcommunication, undercommunication, and things that are part and parcel of a two-day hike, including plain old exhaustion. When the time feels right, I continue, I hope we can meet up again, hug it out, and with the benefit of time, look back on the trip and laugh (or cry) about it.
Then, I press send. Tomorrow, I’ll send a similar email to Sam. And then one to Mike.
I’m no fan of poetry. But maybe it’s true, after all, that not all who wander are lost. In the metaphorical sense, some of us just spend a little more time getting to our destination, to a resolution, to a place where we can be more at peace with ourselves and with others, and accept that some things—many things, really—are beyond our control. If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that reaching those places is worth the wandering.
As far as any actual wandering goes, I think I’ll wait until the feeling returns to my legs.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
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