If you were a Boy or Girl Scout, you know the four cardinal directions – south, west, north, and east. It’s basic compass and map work and even though our compass interpreter might nowadays be Siri or some other computer voice coming at us, I’m still sympathetic to the motive for moving in the right direction. A navigational compass will direct you to your destination if you know how to read the spinning arrow and relate it to the curvy lines on a topographic map. This story isn’t about the compass that failed, but the people who failed, and those who didn’t.
About 20 years ago I hiked with a very young group of Boy Scouts in the Anza Borrego Desert in Southern California. The land was once home to several Native Americans tribes who left petroglyphs and pictograms carved on the rocks. It’s a beautiful area known for its wild flowers, the spiky orange-flowered ocotillo and the brilliant yellow star-shaped chinchweed among the brightest. Dry washes wander like a little kid’s lost shoelaces, tossed everywhere across a rumpled wilderness bowl below a chain of rugged mountains.
The tenacious jumping cholla proliferate everywhere, threatening the innocent hiker who isn’t careful about where he walks or sits. Cholla are a spiny cactus that attaches itself like bad credit to a gambler. It bites when stuck to legs or hands, and the sections, called pads, can’t be removed easily. Easily, as in, you must smack off the clingy pads, but you risk further injury because the dense barbs just slide across tender skin and reattach in other limbs if not removed properly. Properly, as in being related to luck. Still, in evening the desert glimmers every shade of gold and all the pain dissipates in visual splendor, surely a reminder of earth’s first days.
I mention all this dangerous beauty because our scout troop got lost in this desert. We were supposed to be on an easy two-hour hike across a relatively moderate terrain, and we were supposed to arrive at our campground in time for lunch. Unfortunately, our young kids arrived well past dinner time, frightened, thirsty, hungry, cactus bruised, and exhausted. They’d shared their cans of tuna and cheese crackers and the box of vanilla cookies one scout figured was emergency food. They’d shared water, helped carry packs too big, and sang stupid songs to keep up everyone’s flagging energy. Two adults maintained serious injuries and needed help from a couple of young scouts to make it across the desert floor to camp.
It wasn’t the kids’ fault. It was ours, the adult leaders. All our preaching about learning the proper use of tools and we’d blown it. None of us had read the compass properly, and we’d dragged the kids about four miles the wrong direction, a two-mile hike becoming a rigorous six tramped in desert heat. It was spring but plenty hot, and a desert wilderness is intimidating. Stumbling long miles with a group of 10 and 11-year-olds who at most had walked to school a few times during the year made for a group of youngsters who passed from inexperienced to well broken in, literally scratched by cholla and blistered by new boots. About ten boys matured from whiny kids to survivors out of that wearisome adventure, eventually to become Eagle Scouts.
What pain could we have lessened with proper use of a simple compass to guide us correctly? I suspect most of those Eagles would have fledged their noble wings anyway, but we might not have lost the six or so scouts who didn’t last that year in our troop. Still, a compass only guides a traveler to paper destinations. The actual journey we take on whatever route defines how we approach challenges, how we respond to those who need assistance, how we regard what is unexpected. The young scouts lifted themselves to reveal the strong men they would become, and since I’ve remained in touch with many of them, I know how well indeed they grew.
Three qualities defined each boy with a personal compass of three cardinal directions. They pulled from an internal and private power to go longer than anticipated. They banded as emergency volunteers, helping as needed, doing more for others than they realized they could. They created friendships that have lasted decades, boosting admirable qualities. The scouts forged their manhood out of tribulation. By the next morning, most of them laughed as they shared what they’d survived.
I was with those young scouts that weekend, honored to hike with them and observe their three-pointed development. I write now in three cardinal directions, coming together in thirds to fabricate a whole. My personal compass directs me on a map crafted from a passion to write. I delve from my internal muse where my creativity demands quiet and solitude to develop. I reach out to communicate effectively with my audience, finding connections with them in my observations and experiences of the world. I lift up to do my best, the errors I make forcing me to improve, to seek what is universal but also intimate. Any success I attain is measured by those who take solace or find humor or glean wisdom from my words.
May my path take me to a place where I can grow as a person and as a writer, however rugged the terrain, however painful the elements along the way. The beauty at sunset is always worth the difficult hike.
(A note to my readers: This post was supposed to publish on 9/23/2013, but I’m having a bit of a tiff with my computer. Please forgive that it’s a few days late.)