Most of you already know the story: Ken Knight, nearly blind production editor at BackpackingLight magazine, disappeared a week ago today on the Appalachian Trail near Buena Vista, Virginia. On his seventh day of wandering he decided to light a signal fire … when the firefighters showed up, they found him.
I’ve never met the guy and don’t spend much time at BPL (sorry, Sam) because I’ve got too much ultralight hiking gear already, but I do have a few insights on a) hiking with a so-called disability; b) what gets you lost; and c) What gets you found. Since it’s a rainy Sunday and I won’t get any hiking done, I might as well expound a bit, in order.
I’ve seen what people with alleged disabilities can do with a combination of training, preparation and bulldozer determination. Everybody has things they can’t do. Ken Knight, for instance, can’t see anything beyond about 15 feet. I’m legally blind in one eye — I can discern the big E on the eye chart but nothing below it — and I sure wouldn’t want to be relying on this sorry excuse for vision out in the woods. But if I did, here’s what I would do differently: break out my map and compass and determine which way I’m facing, and use what I can see of the trail to make a dead-reckoning guess as to whether it’s the main path.
Hikers get in the habit of judging whether we’re on the main trail vs. use trails or deer paths. I’m guessing the only way a guy with a 15-foot range of vision finds his way is with map, compass and extremely in-depth knowledge of the characteristics of main trails.
From what I’ve read on the discussion board at WhiteBlaze.net, Knight’s hiking experience was defined by getting lost and unlost. He’d find the trail for awhile, lose it for awhile, but eventually find it again. Took him a lot longer to make much progress, of course, but it’s just how he hiked.
People coming up and down the trail could fill in some of the blanks. If he stopped seeing people coming up and down one of the most heavily hiked trails on the planet, that’d be one more clue that he’s off track.
To get back to the point about disability: my one bad eye is part of the package of a birth defect that brought me into the world minus a working version of the seventh facial nerve on my right side. I have a little bitty pathetic excuse for a paralysis that has only one negative consequence: I smile on one side but not the other (the motor neurons aren’t on speaking terms with their attached muscle fibers).
You can feel the eyes on you when you’re a freak of nature, the people wondering what happened and trying not to stare. It turns you into somebody who does not want other people’s help. I can see why a guy like Knight would wander in the woods for seven days, probably going a few days without eating before his survival instinct trumped his independent streak.
How I get lost
My second visit carries the highest risk of discombobulation. First time out I’m cautious, but the second time I figure I know my way around. This inevitably leads to wrong turns born of overconfidence.
Also, the not-wanting-any-help urge discourages me from consulting my map till it’s too late. Having to consult the map is an overt admission of defeat that I put off as long as possible. This always adds extra miles to my hikes, but I figure walking around in the wilderness is the whole idea of hiking, so being lost for awhile is just what it means to be hiking.
I’m guessing that perhaps Knight shares a similar urge. And he might’ve actually been badly served by the number of times he’d gotten himself found — that is, every hike he’d gone on up until a week ago today. I could see how a guy with a full pack of survival gear would just try to work it out till his food ran out and his strength started to fade.
How I get found
First, I never hike without a map, even at places I’ve been to a dozen times. Your brain cannot memorize all the features of an expanse of wilderness. I carry a compass that I end up using about once a year.
More important than reading a compass or map is listening to what nature’s telling me along the way. One time I thought sure I was headed north, but the prevailing westerly breeze hitting my face told me I was heading south. After a half hour of not finding any trace of the trail that should’ve been just around the bend, I got out the map and figured out the breeze was right all along.
I’ve also learned to distrust the comfort of going downhill. I can’t count the number of times I’ve ambled along on a pleasant downslope for a couple miles, remaining in firm denial of the reality that if this is the wrong way I’ll have to retrace all my steps back up the hated hill.
Mainly, though, I’ve just learned there’s no harm in turning back.
As for Knight, I’m sure he’ll have an account of his adventure posted in the next few days. Post a link in the comments if you see it before I do. (Or you could just follow his Twitter feed.)