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Prof. Hike: The First Five Minutes

When you're lost, your initial decisions will make the difference.
Prof Hike First Five 445x260Don't count on signs and blazes to guide you - always bring a map. (Jason Stevenson)

[Lost Episode #2]
Trail to McCauley Hot Springs
Santa Fe National Forest – New Mexico

Several years ago my wife and I got lost while trying to find McCauley Warm Springs in the high forests of New Mexico. This was supposed to be a simple out-and-back day-hike totaling four miles round-trip. It was so simple, I thought, that I decided to leave the guidebook and map in the backseat of our car. At first the hike went well. But then we both noticed that the trail was growing fainter. There were fewer footprints marked in the dirt. Then we had to push branches and vines blocking our way. Finally the footing became rocky and dangerous, especially compared to the original trail. Even after these ominous signs, we continued hiking. We believed we were on the right path right up until the moment my wife was inching across a narrow dirt ledge perched 20 feet above a rushing creek. ‘Face it, we’re lost,’ she told me. And I had to agree. We thought about turning back, but decided to press on. I had a hunch we could T-bone into another trail that would lead to the hot springs. Luckily, that strategy worked and we ended a stressful day with a relaxing soak.

Duh. Leaving the map in the car ensured that my Subaru knew where it was, but that we had no clue. I made that contributing mistake, however, long before we actually got lost. My major failing was not noticing the crescendo of signs—no footprints, no blazes, thicker vegetation—that we were no longer on the correct trail. With 20/20 hindsight, I remember registering some doubts about our route, but I didn’t say or do anything. Like the adage about the frog placed in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil, I didn’t notice the rising danger until it was too late. The most dangerous mistake I made, however, was to keep moving forward instead of backtracking. In this case we got lucky and crossed another trail. But it could have turned our much worse, as it does for many less-fortunate hikers.

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