I was lost. I’d hiked several hours into Utah’s Ashdown Gorge Wilderness the previous day and, within the first two hours of the second morning, I found myself anxious and alone.
I followed the trail and tried to remain confident in my direction, but I soon realized I had lost visibility of the trail. I was pushing through trees, snapping limbs along the way, and scrambling over soft dirt and crumbing rocks. My breathing sped up and my heart pounded hard enough to feel in my chest and hear it in my head.
This was not where I should be.
The Rattlesnake Creek Trail through Ashdown Gorge Wilderness, located in southern Utah’s Dixie National Forest, is a popular full-day hike. I decided to take two days to backpack the 12-plus miles as the summer came to an end; the tall aspens, red cliffs, and panoramic outlooks leading to limestone cliff faces were my motivation.
While I may not consider myself an avid backpacker, I feel comfortable hiking solo and have never lost the trail. Once my feet hit the trail, I usually feel relaxed and content in the wilderness. I pride myself on my composure and ability to remain calm in a crisis.
But now, my feet had lost their direction and my head was doing its best to keep calm. I felt defeated. Anxiety took over as I bushwhacked through shrubs as tall as myself, hoping I would find the trail or something related to it. All my planning and organizing seemed for naught—I doubted myself, this trip, and if I was capable of reaching the end of my trail.
After a half mile, I stopped dead in my tracks. I had tried to keep calm this entire time, but my breath was heavy and short and as much as I tried to focus, my mind was spinning. If I was going to finish this trail and not panic, I had to collect myself.
I had two options: continue on this route hoping to find the trail again or go back the way I came until I reached where I got off trail.
I brushed the dust, weeds, and twigs off of myself, took one deep breath and turned around. I was now conscious of every step, taking deep breaths as I made my way back through the rough forest.
Doubling my pace, I caught sight of the original trail. My breathing slowed and my nerves calmed; my heart stopped feeling like it was ready to jump out of my chest. I began humming to myself—songs that were familiar and comforting, like “Yellow Submarine” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
I stepped back onto the trail and pulled out my map to see how many miles I had left. Starting again, I traveled down from the ledge of the mountainside; worried that my losing the trail had wasted too much time, I refused to stop, slow down, or enjoy the views.
I had become so comfortable with backpacking that I took nature for granted. I became lost, confused, and anxious because I wasn’t paying attention to the world around me. Even when I corrected my mistake and was back on the trail, I still didn’t learn my lesson and allow myself to pause enough to experience where I was or what I was doing.
We can prepare for the unexpected, but many of us rarely do. Instead, we get back to our cars, kick the dirt off our boots, and confidently go about planning our next adventure. This adventure in Ashdown Gorge Wilderness reminded me to constantly stay present: to embrace every breeze that makes the leaves above me whistle, to stop, take it in, and know that it’s okay not to rush.
When you rush, you tend to miss things–like stepping off the trail.
Only a single photograph was taken during the latter half of this journey, which I regret. Every time I look at this photo, I am reminded that there is always time to enjoy the view and of the lessons I learned. There is always time to slow down, take in my surroundings, and be in the present moment outdoors.
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About the author
A Southern California native and Southern Utah transplant, April McPherson’s passions lie in education, mentorship, art, and music. She is an ambassador for the international organization Hike Like a Woman and is working on creating her own organization focused on fostering independence and personal growth in young women.
Find her online