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Tuesday, October 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Ammi Midstokke: Are cartographers necessary in life or wilderness?

Ammi Midstokke is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (The Spokesman-Review / SR)
Ammi Midstokke is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (The Spokesman-Review / SR)
By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

I don’t know where I got my aversion to maps. No map has harmed me, and I see no historical cause for resentment or fear.

Despite this, I appear to resist packing one. Sometimes I even have the intention, but then in some weird subconscious, passive-aggressive map loathing, I “forget.”

“There’s just one trail,” I tell my running companions. “I forgot the map, but we’ll be fine.”

Famous last words. I am also known to get the wrong maps, but somehow have gained the misguided trust of my friends because they just nod and fall in line behind me as we trot up the Stuart Lake trailhead.

We’re headed out to make the Enchantments loop in a single day. By my calculations (also a highly unreliable form of knowledge), we have about 20 miles ahead of us and at least one gnarly climb up Aasgard Pass. We’re well-prepared, though. Among the three of us, we’ve run at least a combined 20 miles over the course of the summer.

We’ve each brought about 8 pounds of snacks just in case we’re a little slow, miss the pass, and end up spending the winter up there like a Lycra-clad Donner party. Or in case there is more than one trail (there is) and I take us up the wrong one (I did).

The Enchantments are as they sound: a place one should go to be courted by Mother Nature, humbled by her majesty, and in awe at the display of colors she paints in the mountains. The aquamarine lakes, the sharp gray of the granite, the contrasting white of the snow, and the graduated tones of the larch trees that transform from green to a glowing gold as we climb up the canyon.

“I forgot how beautiful this is,” I offer as I patter down a part of the trail that escapes my memory. Probably because I’d never actually been there. Self-doubt is a funny thing. First you doubt yourself and then you doubt your doubt, and then you need to break the cycle with facts that you can rely on. This undoubtedly is easier with a map.

My favorite alternative to actually knowing where I am is to point at various peaks and valleys and confidently name them or explain our intended route. This also keeps my jogging buddies doubting me or themselves, which I consider rather an act of compassion. I prefer to limit their emotional suffering because, as it was becoming more evident by the mile, they were going to have a little more physical suffering than originally planned.

Based on many firsthand experiences, the best way to get lost is to do it early in the day. Fresh legs and naive optimism help to minimize the rational concern people might otherwise have about the additional 6 miles they just ran in the wrong direction. Food supplies and adventure excitement are still high, blisters have not yet begun to form, and no one has realized they forgot their headlamp yet. We’re not planning on being out after dark anyway.

I am particularly fond of how my outdoor ego gets checked on occasion by the young couple in matching REI kit that doesn’t have any duct tape on it. I sometimes like to pretend I’m rather weathered and, dare I say, knowledgeable about outdoor adventures and the associated safety precautions one ought to take to limit risk. Also, I have helicopter insurance like a responsible hiking adult.

The cosmos has a way of bringing a measure of humility to my cocky runner self as I pitter-patter toward some hikers. They are so cute with their new boots and leisurely pace. I bet they are taking the route in comfortable 4-mile chunks and eating shelf-stocked dehydrated meals. They probably even have comforts like inflatable pillows and whole toothbrushes. And maps.

The raised eyebrow and chuckle they respond with says it all. “Um, no, that trail is several miles in the other direction.” They were so nice. I wondered why I didn’t go on more adventures like that – the kind that let you enjoy the trails and mountains without dangling at the precipice of survival or the threshold of physical endurance. What if my weekend romps did not require recovery but were actually the recovery?

The other question that begged answering as we turned on our heels and ran back down the canyon was: Why don’t I want to know where I am going? It isn’t just the maps, but rather a pattern in life, a fidelity to spontaneity and curiosity about the unknown.

My friends laughed with me, and we relished in the additional hours that we would have to share stories and make memories. We spent the day supporting each other up the mountain pass, laughing, resolving everything from work conflicts to dysfunctional family histories. We shared our snacks, encouraged each other to push harder, go slower, take care of our feet, and speak to ourselves with kindness. No one mentioned the morning’s detour with anything other than jovial acceptance.

As we stretched out our legs on the final descent, almost giddy at the prospect of things like Birkenstocks and pizza, I realized that where we are going was not so important. What really matters is that we’re going there with the right people.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at

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