We arrived in the middle of the arid pinyon-juniper woodlands with clean clothes, heavy backpacks, and an atmosphere of anticipatory excitement. Our small group of six students and two instructors already felt like a crowd as we piled out of the dusty van. Between the expansive landscape and over a year of social distancing, being around this many new people made me feel both overwhelmed and ecstatic. After a quick lunch, it was time to pull out the map and locate ourselves in relation to the marked entrance of Horseshoe Canyon. As I had been assigned the role of “navigator” that day, it fell into my hands to lead the group to our camp for the next two nights. I’d navigated wilderness using topographic maps and a compass before, but never with so few landmarks to orient myself—and in the middle of canyon country nonetheless.
Of course I had never been singularly responsible for our route; I had co-navigators the entire day and consulted with our instructors multiple times. Had I been asked to do this alone, I would have been completely disoriented. We learned to navigate using a compass as our continual guide, consistently pausing to check our bearings and choosing a new juniper tree on the horizon to walk towards. As we walked, I chose my path carefully through the cryptobiotic soil, a miraculous ecological collaboration of the smallest and most resilient organisms on this planet: towers of algae and fungi with a sprinkle of lichen on top, holding the foundations of this land together with their nutrient-cycling abilities. When disturbed, it can take up to 200 years for it to recover and rebuild. Knowing this, we took our utmost care to walk in each other’s footsteps and choose our route carefully to avoid unnecessary trampling. Eventually, crypto crushed and cheeks flushed, we discovered we were going the wrong way, standing northwest of our intended destination. I had been following the wrong arrow on the compass. Had I been leading according to the correct one, we would probably be in the right spot. It wasn’t my inattention to the task that had led us astray, but rather my overestimation of my orienteering knowledge and internal rejection of asking for help.
We stood looking at the side canyon we were not supposed to be able to see from our destination, and made a new plan together. In some way, we were exactly where we needed to be, already home with a group of near strangers walking and learning with each other. Getting lost was an important lesson to me, one I’ve had to relearn again and again. As Ram Dass, the author of Be Here Now put it, “we are all just walking each other home.” Humans are social animals, and to truly come home within ourselves, we learn from our interactions with others. The people who surrounded me that day were more than happy to walk me home; their smiling eyes told me so. On our first day together, we had already found reassurance in each other’s faces, maps we read with our embodied emotional orienteering skills.
When we are lost, how do we find our way back home? This question had been burning on the edges of my mind since that first day wandering down Horseshoe Canyon, entranced by the petrified Navajo dunes and shifting varnished walls. In a landscape that seemed so uninhabitable, we saw life flourishing around every bend. We weren’t the only ones navigating in this red desert home.
A whiptail lizard who stalked a fly from her slickrock perch. A kangaroo rat’s tiny pathway intersected by pinprick beetle tracks zigzagging across the fine sand. We examined the maps of these imprints and interpreted their symbols to discern who walked here before us. Peregrine falcons mobbing golden eagles far above our riparian cottonwood wanderings. Spiraling sky patterns allowed our interpretation of their energetic dances. These were among many elements of the whole ecosystem we had only just started to explore. None of this was on our map, but they are the things I remember the most. Maybe the most important maps are the ones we understand from interactive experiences. Perhaps interactions are our means of discovering our own positionality. These ideas come from the study of systems ecology, but could really be applied to any whole with interacting parts: the body, a group of people traveling in the desert, Earth…
I’m writing this from my childhood home in Salt Lake City, Utah. I feel lost. I was supposed to be scrambling out of Horseshoe Canyon with only the thought of a shower in Hanksville keeping me going. For now, I am here recovering from an old injury which came back to bite me after so many months of slumber. I’m trying to heal, while still trying to understand what healing truly means. This diversion was not drawn on the map, but I’m coming to understand maps aren’t really what I thought they were–and neither is healing. The process of healing isn’t linear, but rather an expanding circle, a helix. As I mitigate my back injury, I have to consider every moment that brought me to this place in my body. Why didn’t I seek help for this weakness I’ve felt lurking under my surface for so long before I entered a backcountry setting? Wilderness travel on the Colorado Plateau is the same way: we swirl and wave to match a landscape that is so much larger than us. Every rock, tree, and footprint is impactful, together creating a whole picture. Together we form the spiral.
To attend to the wellness of a system, you have to continually rediscover this oscillating equilibrium of wholeness. My existence upon this wave has only just breached my conscious mind. It’s not enough to zoom out and say, “this is my map, and this is where I’m going.” You have to make your own maps and tread new pathways, encountering interactions with beings–human or “other”–along the way. Here and now, I have a resilient body I am so thankful to inhabit. Sometimes my body needs to be reoriented, and it is more than prudent to ask for help in doing this. I’m privileged to have support from other people in this process, and I now have a new appreciation of their aid. Despite the detours I experience and the confusing waves of elastic energy I feel, this body is wholly my home. I’m redrawing my personal map to guide my psyche in moments like now when I feel adrift. The new draft highlights the importance of my interpersonal connections. Soon I will return to the desert, and when I do, my new map of Self will continue to spiral and grow with new pathways and connections.