This is the third part in a short series from my time at field camp in college. Look for the next parts in the coming weeks. You can read previous parts here.
I sat on a rock on the side of a dirt road sucking breaths in my mouth and out my nose, trying not to panic. It was the midterm of field camp, a test where all the students wandered the same map area inscribing the rock formations onto their paper topo maps. We were all together, but also alone. I was alone.
I had no idea where I was. Geologically, I knew I was sitting in the middle of the Banded Formation, a red shaly unit, but that didn’t help me with the test, since I could have been anywhere on the map I held in my hand, and therefore didn’t know where to scribble a note about this rock unit. I heard a couple students exchange pleasantries around the nearby hill, and put my head down as if I was deep into map making mode, and not trying desperately to hide my water-filled eyes.
Just in case you weren’t clear on this, you have to be able to read a map to be a geologist. So far, I’d spent my entire undergrad faking it, pretending I could do this, and now the reckoning had come. Not only was I going to fail this test, I was going to get lost in this desolate wilderness and die. That was the consequence of pretending you had what it takes. I had even seen a wooden cross stuck in the ground earlier in my aimless map-illiterate wandering. I thougt about finding it and laying down to die. No one would even have to—
“Hey Ash,” Doug said. I whipped my head up, to see my field partner and friend strolling happily along the road. “How’s it going?”
Seeing a friendly face that couldn’t help me nearly crushed my soul, but I managed to say, “Not great.” in a squeaky voice that was supposed to sound nonchalant, but didn’t.
“What’s wrong?” Doug asked, immediately concerned.
I sighed heavily to keep the tears at bay and sucked in a few breaths before I could trust my voice. “You know how great I am at finding myself on a map.”
Doug looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and amusement, which annoyed me enough that I got control of the water threatening to spill over onto my cheeks. He didn’t speak. He couldn’t help me. This was a test. “You don’t know where you are? Right now?” he asked annunciating the words as if that was going to help me figure it out.
I shook my head. “I am going to fail!” I wailed.
Doug just stared for a minute longer. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out, Ash.” He was the only person alive that called me that.
“Maybe,” I said feeling as about as small and intelligent as a mouse.
Doug sighed, “Well I’m off. To walk down this road. To the next outcrop. See ya.” I waved and Doug hesitated, giving me a look that said, “that was a clue,” before he continued on his way.
I closed my eyes, prepared to recreate my path back to the sad little cross that would mark my grave. Yes, Doug had been trying to give me a clue, but I was too far gone to figure that out. (Okay, so I know that no one would have left me to die but I was about to be exposed as a fraud, which seemed just as bad.)
Suddenly Doug’s words clicked. He was walking down a road. Nothing could be easier to identify on a map than a road, especially when there is only one road on the map. I stood abruptly and stared at the curve of the dirt road ahead, seeing it on the map, seeing where I was. Now I was on track.
As I gathered my map, field notebook, backpack and other supplies, I heard Doug’s Wahoo. It came from the north, up high, and I looked towards it. I couldn’t see which peak he was on, but something told me that he could see me, so I smiled. That Wahoo was both comforting and painful. It said that my friend Doug was out there too, but I wasn’t with him.
I looked at my map, which was now beginning to come into focus in the real world. Instead of following the road, as Doug had done, I stepped off the road and onto a rocky slope. There was a rock at the top of this hill. If there is a hill there must be a reason for it. I left the road behind and went to go find out what was waiting for me up there.