This past Saturday, I had decided to go for a bicycle ride, even though the weather wasn't that great -- a slight mist in the air, overcast, but actually not too cold (about 65 degrees). I got the recumbent out and headed out toward the dirt road loop I've been doing past the bird sanctuary on Old Springfield Road. I went a little further and headed up towards the Audubon Center, taking the right hand of the fork in the road just past their entrance drive. I took that road to the end, then headed back.
I stopped to look at an old, unpaved trail that crosses the road I was on, heading north and south, the north end going into the Audubon Center. I'd wondered about this path before, but today it looked more appealing than usual to try to ride on -- like somebody had been clearing it up a little, taking out sticks and maybe chopping back some brush. I decided to take the southern route of the path. Along this path on its left side ran a line of trees. To the left of this line of trees was a small field, with what looked like a well-worn track (probably made by farm tractors or other vehicles driving through it) immediately abutting the tree line. This is an important detail, to which I will later come back.
At first, the riding was fine... a little rough, with some roots and mud, but not too bad. Then, after pedaling in a few tenths of a mile, I saw an appealing path heading off to the left into some pretty fields, and I took it.
For a while, it was fun -- beautiful trees and bushes, small meadows, and the path was more or less clear, though in places it had long grass growing in it. Then the grass and weeds started to grow taller, and the path disappeared.
I continued on, trusting in my sense of direction (which is generally pretty good, or so I thought) to lead me back out to either the original path I had taken or to that track into the field just to the left of the trailhead I had started down originally. I figured I would just make a gentle arc back in that direction, and I would in due time come out in that general vicinity. But the weeds just kept getting taller, and I couldn't see the path. Eventually I couldn't pedal through the weeds any more and I got off and started pushing my bike. That was only slightly easier, as the weeds and grass -- which by this point were easily three or four feet high and dense -- would get caught in the various parts of the bike, making pushing a real chore. Even walking through them was a chore, as they would wrap around my feet, getting me tangled up and making me stumble. I kept going, and thought I saw a way out near the edge of some woods... but although the weeds got thinner there, I was faced with a brook which I had not expected to see. I realized then that I had no real idea where I was -- I was lost. I didn't know where the original path was. I had gotten completely turned around. Looking about me, I could see no recognizable landmarks.
So I decided that the best thing to do was to head back the way I had come in, and retrace my steps back to the original path. I was not looking forward to this, as it meant fighting my way back through the high grass and weeds, and going UPHILL for the most part. I did think that at least I had already been through that stuff, so my path would be a little bit clearer than just bushwhacking through untouched growth. Well, that plan fell apart when I realized I couldn't find my previous path -- I just could not see where I had come through. So this meant I did have to bushwhack.
Around this time I started to realize that my heart rate had gone up quite a bit -- this was the kind of aerobic exercise that I don't generally get, and I could feel my heart pounding very fast. It was then that I think I started to panic. I knew that although I could not be TOO far away from either the path or the paved road -- probably no more than a mile at most -- I had no real idea which way I should head to get to either one of them most quickly. What concerned me was that if I started off in what seemed like a likely direction, I could -- given how completely off-course I was at the moment -- just start walking in circles, getting even more exhausted as I tried to force my way through the tall weeds. I started to worry that I might have a heart attack as I fought my way through the dense growth. I also started to worry that I might run into bears (I know, unlikely... but not impossible... they're pretty common around this area). I looked around and I could see no houses, no roads... just tall weeds and grass and trees. If at that moment I had been asked to point to where the paved road was, the one on which I had ridden to the trailhead, I know now that I could not have done it correctly except by sheer chance. By this time, it was almost impossible to push the bike through the grass and weeds, so dense had they become, so for the most part I had to lift it up and CARRY it, which got my heart rate going even more (it's a long, fairly heavy bike).
I was starting to freak out. No one knew I was out there. If I keeled over from a coronary, I probably wouldn't be found for weeks. The grass and weeds were so high that I don't think the bike could be seen even from a short distance. I actually yelled "Help!" a few times, but got no reply. I came about a minute or two away from calling my friend Rob, who lives in nearby Easthampton, to see if he could come and find me -- maybe park out on the road and beep his horn so I could get my bearings or something. Every couple of minutes I would stop and try to let my rapidly beating heart slow down. Of course, when I'd do that the mosquitos would start to gather.
The one manmade thing I could see about three hundred feet away were some power lines under which I had passed when I was crossing this field of tall grass and weeds previously, before I decided I had to turn around and retrace my steps. But they were an old style of power lines with wooden poles and I couldn't recognize them as something that led to the road I was looking for -- for all I knew, they went off through the surrounding woods and fields until they crossed Route 10, and that was much further than I cared to go (or, perhaps, even COULD go -- my strength might not hold out). But I figured I should try to make my way back to them, and see if there might be an old track that led alongside them. So I fought my way through the tall stuff, and there WAS kind of an almost invisible track -- like it had been cut or crushed down months ago and had almost (but not quite) grown back up as tall as the other weeds and grass. So I started following this.
In spots, I could actually pedal, so I rode a little bit. But for the most part, I got off and pushed. I had to cross a small stream along the way, but that wasn't too bad. Oh, and at some point during this, I noticed that my chain had come off the sprocket, which made me groan -- would I have to fix the bike while simultaneously trying to find my way out of this predicament? Fortunately, I was able to quickly get the chain back onto the sprocket with judicious use of the twist shifter and backpedaling.
My heart was still pounding pretty hard, so I forced myself to take it easy, stopping every so often. But I really wanted to get out of there! Eventually, I came out from behind some trees and saw a house I recognized about a quarter of a mile away. Then I realized where I was... and I was stunned to see that it wasn't anywhere near where I thought I should be. (It was actually at the intersection of the roads near the entrance to the Audubon Center, which is about half a mile back from where I picked up the trail originally.) The field I had to cross to get to the road was, thankfully, recently mowed, so the grass was only about a foot high. I was able to ride about half of the way. Finally I made it to the paved road. What a relief!
A few days later, I went back with my friend Rick to show him the site of my misadventure. I didn't want to have to struggle thorough that high, tangly stuff -- it still gave me the creeps to even think about getting back into that -- so we stuck to the edges of the fields and only went far enough so that I could point out to him where I'd screwed up. Rick had brought with him a few satellite photos he'd printed out from Google Earth, so we were able to use though to get our bearings. And it's a good thing, too, as we rapidly lost track of where we were. At one point, we were standing at the edge of the last field, the one where I had started to panic, and Rick asked me where, from our perspective, the road up to East Street in Easthampton was. I looked around and pointed over to our right. "No," Rick said, and pointed straight ahead. "It's over there." I couldn't believe it, but looking at the Google Earth photos, it was clear that he was right and I was wrong. It was a sobering moment.
Here's a panoramic view of the area in question...
So what's the point of this post? I guess it's just to say that I learned a lesson that day about the dangers of solely depending on my sense of direction, which -- prior to this -- I'd always felt was pretty accurate. It's funny -- about a month or so ago, I was listening to a piece on the radio about a study that was recently done testing people out in the woods, to see if they could find their way without compasses or other sorts of navigation aids. Almost everyone tested -- I think it might have been over ninety percent -- ended up walking in circles. Very few people could walk for any significant distance in a straight line.
And that's what made my little misadventure scary... the idea that while I was really no more than a mile or two from "civilization", I might have continued to walk in circles, all the while thinking that I was heading in a straight line... getting more and more exhausted and panicky as I went. -- PL