There are a lot of phrases we use in everyday life that most of us have no real understanding of.

On healthcare, someone recently said to me, “Go ahead, wade right in”.  Obvious, right? Wade right into a debate implies you’re going to just walk knee-deep into a bog of crap, regardless of what’s on the other side, or what might be waiting in the middle.  It’s a little daring, a little stupid, and a lot messy.

Or, there’s “get your bearings”.  Until today, I thought that meant orient yourself to what’s around you, so you could head off in the right direction.  It does.  But today it meant something a little more.

Then, there’s that old Boy Scout motto. You know it.  I usually live by it.  “Be Prepared” they intone, little ten year olds, oh so sure of themselves.

Today, I learned whole new meanings for those (and other) phrases and OH.MY. GOD. did I have fun.  See, today, I went Orienteering.  You could call it Adult Exploration but that sounds a little X Rated.  Or maybe Over The River And Through The Woods With A Few Grandmas On the Trail.  Or maybe just Hiking To Find Shit.   But whatever you’d like to call it, I call it fun.

I met my friend (and guru adventurer) Jenny at the event in a local Forrest Preserve this morning, and we quickly got our map, picked a team name, rented a compass, and got ready.  The way Orienteering works, you pick a course that is equal to your skill level (or, ahem, sometimes you shoot a little high, and choose one a bit more aggressive).  Then, you look at the organization’s “master maps” (I’m sure I’ve got that name wrong), and you copy the exact location of each “Control” point to your own map. (A control is like a Flag Box on the Amazing Race – you have to find the box to move onto your next clue – in this case, to move to your next control.)  Each control has a punchcard (or some fancy thingie that you just slip into an electronic tracker) and you punch your card, and, like the Amazing Race, quickly move away from the box, whip out your compass, and chart a course to your next location. 

Now, I say that like I knew how any of this worked 24 hours ago (which I did not – I was drinking a beer, well-accessorized and dressed, and having a nice night out with friends, all city girl, all the time.)  Then, I didn’t know that the direct line between two control points would often be through 3 feet of thorns and burrs, (times 20) and that shorts are for amateurs.  I wouldn’t know how to read a map with a compass and get a bearing (dude, I’m a TRAIL hiker!).  I didn’t know how to “get a bearing” – but now, I know HOW TO DO IT.  WITH A COMPASS.  (I’m feeling pretty darned proud of myself right now, in case you can’t tell.  Not that I could do any of this without a teacher.  But there you go.  Good teacher, good day.)

I also didn’t realize I’d be Wading Right In to a stream.  To be fair, I tried to leap across it, but got too close to the slippery edge, and instead just slid right into it (both feet) and sort of awkwardly fell back on my butt/hands.  It was quite a picture, I’m sure.  On the other hand, I found out my tiny teammate is DARNED strong, as she helped pull me up out of that stream (and I easily outweigh her by a whole human).  That’s teamwork.

As for “be prepared”, well, I might have missed that boat a little today.  See, I kind of showed up in my shorts – which would be great if I was doing a trail run – but since I was actually a BUSHWACKER breaking on through to the other side, shorts were kind of tough.  (I’ll know next time, never, ever wear shorts.  Jeans, yes.  Cargo pants, yes.  Gaiters if you want them, yes.  But not shorts.)  And we took some water, which was also good (especially considering I have a pavlovian response to water – whenever I stop moving, I must sip.)  In any case, next time, Be Prepared will be our motto – but even without crazy planning, we did okay.  And actually we did really, really well as a team, which was kind of fun.

All due credit to my teammate Jenny, who lead the way the entire time, and, though we worked together every step of the way, definitely made sure they didn’t have to send out the search party for us.  (If I’d been leading, I would have been tripping over tree roots, checking compass to map every five feet, and wondering if I was on my way to Elmhurst.  Jenny was SOLID, and never doubted that we could get to where we were going.  Very, very cool.)

So yes, I’m hooked.  It might have been the fact that we worked as a team (but you can work alone).  Maybe it was that my mind didn’t stop processing trail and map and bearing and where to put my foot and OH there’s a GULCH all day…  Or it might be that I got to translate what I saw in front of me to what was on the map, and then realize that I had a 50/50 shot of still reading the map wrong – but again, I had a teammate to confer with, decide the best course, and move forward.  It wasn’t all about me (though I’m sure this post makes it sound like that…).  Either way, I was having fun.  I got to explore something totally new, and though I was definitely nearing the Bite Me zone by Marker 8 (when my rock star teammate went running through the woods to punch the number while I stood on the other side of a Bitchin Thicket) we still finished strong, and smiling.

It was a super cool day for a city girl.  And I’ll remember one of those other key things we learned today.   Having a burr on your ass isn’t such a bad thing.  At least it shows you’ve been somewhere worth seeing lately, took a chance, and waded off the trail.  Sometimes, (warning, LIFE LESSON COMING) bushwacking is just the way to go. Yeah, you could take the long way, get on a path, and know it will take you somewhere – but what if it’s the wrong place?  Why trust in a trail YOU didn’t make?  What made those people before you so smart? And why follow someone when you’re not sure their goals are the same as yours? 

In short, I got to run this race just like I get to live my life.  It’s a little crazy, a little tiring, and a little uncertain.  But with the right tools, the right friends, the right approach, and the right sense of humor, I’ll get through it. And I’ll get to see some AWESOME stuff along the way.   It’s not a bad life analogy, frankly, that’s probably why it was so much fun. 

So have I convinced you this is worth investigating?  Awesome.  Want more info? 

Check out the Chicago Area Orienteering Club, or to find a club near you, check out some of the links on this page (which include a bunch of midwest orienteering organizations, along with National links.) 

It’s worth every penny.  Even if I did get a “thorn in my side.”

See you on the path!

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