The air shimmered above the sand, radiating heat. Hillside after hillside of sage brush and twisted pinion pines curved against the horizon, each identical to the others. I could feel the sun blistering my helmet. Far below, the town gleamed like a pendant strung on the shining river that wound through the valley.
Technically, I wasn’t lost. I could see the town. I just couldn’t see how to get back to it.
I’d biked this trail several times before, and each time I’d taken a wrong turn. This year, I was determined to get it right. And I did…at that junction. But at the next junction, I coasted downhill instead of continuing to pedal up the mountain. My legs probably made the decision, and they can’t be trusted.
Though I love the desert, I wouldn’t say I felt comfortable being disoriented in it. Native to the dank rainforests of West Virginia, I’d have an easier time hacking my way through their lush, dark undergrowth than navigating the sameness of the wide-open vistas of the Sand Dunes trail. Sand Dunes? I’m more familiar with swamp. And even though I’d brought enough water for two days and bathed in sunblock, I still had visions of bleached bones in the sun. Time to find my way back to town.
Trying to be optimistic, I crept back up the steep trail. At the top was a short, steep section that I coasted down, grateful for the breeze. Was it my imagination, or was my skin starting to smell a little bit like bacon? Could my pasty Appalachian complexion be literally cooking in the western sun?
As I turned a corner, I heard voices. There, yards ahead, were three other mountain bikers taking a break. In their bright jerseys, they seemed like exotic birds with dazzling plumage. I pulled up to them and they greeted me.
Due to my crisping skin, I cut the small talk. “I took a wrong turn,” I said, and explained my mistake.
The most vocal of the three said, “You want to go back to town? You should take the Mesa trail.”
I shaded my phone screen and squinted at the map. “The which?”
“Oh, it’s not on the map. But locals ride it all the time.”
“Is it very long? I’m sort of…” ‘…roasting,’ I thought.
“Nope, if you’re going back to town, it’s the shortest route, for sure.”
I should also mention that mountain bikers sometimes tease out-of-towners by sending them on a snipe hunt over rough or otherwise inappropriate trails. So, I was suspicious. “What’s it like? I’ve got a dinner appointment, and I don’t want the search and rescue to come looking for me if I miss it,” I said pointedly.
The other two were listening, but offered no descriptions. “There’s some exposure,” said the spokesman. “But not too bad.”
“How do I get there?”
He pointed over my shoulder and winced. “You have to climb back up that hill.”
I turned, wondering if anyone else could hear my legs groaning.
“Sorry,” he said.
That day, I re-learned a critical lesson. A guide makes all the difference. I love to explore, to go places I’ve never been. I seek out new paths and little, hidden corners. But that tendency can get me in trouble fast.
The Lord compares us to sheep for a reason. I’m sure the sheep who wandered from the flock had great intentions. She was probably really excited to explore interesting new areas of the pasture. She may have even indulged in a little pride, thinking she was smart enough to figure out her own way. She didn’t need anyone to tell her where to go.
But I’ve found there’s a fragile barrier between adventure and disaster. One way to keep that barrier in place is to find the right guide. You don’t have to blaze every trail if you have the benefit of someone else’s first-hand experience. One of the church’s most underrated resources is access to guides who are ahead of us on their journey of faith.
But I’ve found there’s a fragile barrier between adventure and disaster. One way to keep that barrier in place is to find the right guide.
Retracing my route, I found where the unmarked Mesa Trail branched up and over another featureless hill. I soon discovered my guide and I did not share the same definition of “a little exposure”, as the left edge of the trail melted away in a steep drop. I refused to look, instead keeping my eyes ahead, at the shining town drawing closer. A guide will direct you, but they can’t do the work for you.