I can’t promise to be slick or pretty here today. It’s been a very tough, humbling day and I’m both irritated with myself and surprised. Orienteering is hard, okay? I just want to say that. It’s a very challenging sport, and today I fell flat on my face. Literally and figuratively.
It’s hard to learn to do something complicated. Orienteering, writing, learning a language. There are so many ego things tangled up in it, the ego that wants to always be looking slick, dignified, together, smart, and always, always hip.
First, that reminds me: this whole week has been about CR running the US Champs and the Colorado Five Day. He’s a serious, long-time orienteer and runner, but he’s been very busy the past couple of years and couldn’t train as much as he wished. This year, he did. He’s only been training since March, and he ran very well this week. Very well. Numbers aren’t all in, but looks like a nice solid top five. Not just in his class. Top five overall.
Now to my struggle, which I hope will give you courage in your writing struggles:
So, two completed orange course in the past couple of weeks. Feeling pretty good for the last event of the season today. (The Colorado Five Day has been going on this week, in case you’re wondering why there’ve been so many posts about orienteering.) Today’s event was in the mountains, at Saylor Park, which is at about 9000 feet, and very hilly.
Gorgeous day. I’ve been feeding CR lots of past all week, running support module around here, and I was glad for this last chance to test myself over what I’ve learned. Felt pretty good. Had my compass and my Gu and my running shoes on. A hat against the sun. Hefty CamelBak because one thing I know about myself is that I’m a lot less likely to panic over anything if there is plenty water. Weird little Colorado girl trait, maybe, but there it is.
CR was off like a rocket. I watched him head out, then got my map.
Not. A. Good. Day.
I really got lost. The first mistake was my own, a silly mistake I shouldn’t have made, but I compounded it by insisting in my head that I knew what I was doing. I recovered, let the first mistake go, then did the next five legs cleanly, making smart decisions that put me right on course. I navigated forest, marshes, waded through waist high grass with soggy feet and never even thought about what might be in the water (though may I say I would not do this sport anywhere there might be watersnakes). Twice, I tripped in my haste and scraped my knee, a thigh, jolted my wrist, but both times, I just leapt back up and kept going. I knew from looking at CR (it’s good to have a mentor) that falling is part of the game.
I took a fall after the sixth control. Tore my shoe and lost the compass for a few minutes, and I think it rattled me. Or maybe that’s just my excuse. But I did not find the next control. I was getting tired (the first control took much too long) and hot and sweaty, and sometimes the right answer is to call it day.
But, as often happens, I made another navigation error and really got lost. I mean, really lost. There are few trails in this park, and the rain has made a thick carpet of greenery. I found myself in an impassable ravine, on a boulder, all alone in the utterly silent forest with no idea where I was. Standing there, I could see where I wanted to go, but could not figure out how I could get there. The thought of bears was in my mind. It occurred to me that I didn’t have a whistle, which I should have had. The cell phone wasn’t getting a signal. When I looked at the map, it all looked the same. One reentrant after another. Boulders and rocks, some marked, some not. No people around. No beaten down grass to follow.
There were two choices. I could stand there and freak out, or try to see if I could get out of there. I scraped through to a fairly level spot, looked at the map and made a guess over where I was, and headed south. It was the only thing I could do at that moment, the only bearing I had: I knew where south was, and I knew that the finish was south of where I was.
Eventually, I managed to climb a steep ridge and found an indistinct path to follow. It seemed it would lead somewhere. The distances were not huge, so surely I’d find a road soon.
The trouble was, it wasn’t the road I thought. It was empty and featureless (reentrant, trees, boulders, reentrant, minor bend, reentrant, boulder field, trees) and I had no idea where I was, but again, it was heading south. I knew that I was going south.
But here was my dark moment. I had no more GU. The water was running out. I had no idea where I was on the map and I’d left half the flags unfound. I was defeated. It seemed like everything I’d learned was temporary, that all those disdainful gym teachers and the jocks who looked down on my clumsiness were right: I was not an athlete, no matter what my friend Mary said, and I was proving the truth with this failure. Obviously, I’m just not good at this and I should just stop trying. I’m making a fool of myself and everyone probably thinks I’m pathetic.
I’m sure you know this voice. It might say slightly different things, but it’s always mean. It’s the voice of a nasty green-skinned goblin whose entire job is to make sure you feel really lousy.
The one thing I didn’t do was cry. I absolutely would not allow it. Whatever happened, I would just keep going.
I will not lie, my friends. It took a long time, but after an hour of walking I finally found my way to a fork in the road that was, far, far from where I wanted to be, but at least I knew where it was. It was downhill, and I jogged to the finish. It took awhile, but that was the thing I could do to feel better. I jogged all the way on a knee that didn’t mind, and that felt really good. I passed a woman in her seventies, who’d run a tough course and wasn’t pleased with her performance. Two girls waved at me. I kept jogging.
It was a lousy run for me. I made mistakes and my inexperience got to me, but in the end, I didn’t have to be rescued. I just kept going and found my way back to where I needed to be, and learned. A lot. Covered with grit and sweat and bruises, burrs and scratches, and with torn shoes, I made it home.
Orienteering is hard. CR said later that this is the hardest terrain I’ve experienced, but that’s to be expected. This is like speaking another language. I’m very good with words and it’s very difficult for me to risk looking ridiculous in another language, but you have to be bad at something before you can ever be good. I need to be a bad orienteer before I can be a good one. A bad speaker of French and Spanish and Italian before I can every be okay at them.
Writing is hard, too. It’s hard to stay with it, to be terrible at it, to make mistakes and write bad books sometimes and take chances knowing you might fail. You will fail. So will I. But the only way to better is to keep moving, keep reminding yourself of what you DO know and realize that the only way to learn is to be vulnerable and open.
May I say, however, that I’m going to be quite happy to do something tomorrow that is not such a test? I’m going to polish some pages. Tweak sentences. Layer in some poetry and a little secret payoff for readers who are paying attention to details. Those are things that I, after decades of practice, know how to do.