Water Holes


“A man that travels horseback needs to remember where the water holes are, but a man that rides in a train can forget about water holes, because trains don’t drink.”  Woodrow Call on attributing Charles Goodnight’s bad memory to his riding of trains—from Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry]

I returned to the rental car after having supper.  Belinda and I were visiting her mother.  Though we knew this landscape well some thirty-five years ago, the population is three times greater today.  My landmarks are gone, so I chose to use the GPS on my phone to get us to the restaurant.  As we loaded in the car after supper, I pulled out my phone to use the GPS to get us home.  I tried to do that without bringing attention to myself—I didn’t want to admit I had only listened to computer spoke directions and hadn’t paid attention to how I got there.  However, my mother-in-law is not one to let much go and way too attentive.  She asked, “What are you getting that out for?,” with that smirky smile she saves for when she knows she’s got you.

“I need it to get back home,” I said.  That gave her the fodder she was looking for.  From parking lot to home, I was on the receiving end of ribbing concerning phones and a society that no longer knows how to pay attention to the world around them.  I looked in the rearview mirror a few times, but Belinda gave no shrift either, she smiled and laughed all the way home. My ribs hurt by the time we got back.  Not so much from the poking, but because I agreed.


A few days of good mountain weather opened up toward the end of the summer.  I grabbed hiking gear and headed to the Goat Rock backcountry.  While Mount Rainer and Phato get most of the attention from the lowlands, the Goat Rocks are a dynamic, assessable land that speaks to the everyday.  The Pacific Crest trail gives wonderful mountain(s) views around one bend or another, but off trial you are sure to run into elk, mountain goats, and more than a chipmunk or two.  One never has to go far from the trail though to find an outcropping view of a lower valley that gives the feeling the Creator made this place just for you.

I sat facing west on a rock outcropping.  The morning was late and the sky blue.  Though I am not much of a sketcher, I had pencil and paper in hand doing my best to draw the spirit of the land.  Sketching the quietness of treetop bending in breeze is impossible with the skills I bring to the outcropping, but an amazing centering comes with the try.  Though I cannot express the dance of tree and breeze, the spirit of place is mine for that moment.

Lying twenty from the trail, the outcropping feels the sun which has risen above the eastern ridge.  Soon the warmth of rock on my backside and cool of breeze across my face has me has me thinking of laying pad and pencil down, kicking back, and closing eyes.  The thought was for naught though as a young woman and man came around the southern bend in the trail.  Their pace made it clear; they were looking for a place to break.

There are all sorts of hikers, is as it should be.  Loners nod as they walk by.  Others keep up an incessant conversation, whether they are with others or not.  Others smile and say hi when they meet you one the trial, open to a bit of relationship, but not too much.  The last seemed to fit these two.  Figuring it best to walk rather than nap, I stand and say this cropping has great view across the valley.  “Oh no,” she said.  The hitch in their pace said “yes!”  “I am heading out, so whatever is best for you…” and I reached for the backpack.

Soon we all in transition—pack going on and packs coming off.  Talk centered on the trail, the beautiful day, and the goats a few miles back.  As we traded trail for outcropping and outcropping for trail, he looked at his GPS.  I commented on the GPS and soon we were talking about how differently we moved through the hills.  I with map and compass, them with GPS.  To my surprise, they were quite comfortable walking days on a trail without a proper paper map.  The map on their device was all they needed.  I imagine it mostly my age, but they were not surprised at all that I put my stock in paper and compass.  Neither case mattered much; we all got about the mountains just fine.

I fear if I hiked by use of GPS it would lend me to the same forgetfulness of Goodnight riding train rather than horse.  I might get where I want to, but I would forget where God place the water holes.  I say I like the feel of paper and compass and challenge of figuring out the landscape out for myself.  Yet, I also fear if I used GPS I might find myself on some outcropping with no better idea how to get back home than that day in a restaurant parking lot.

Hiking is one thing, but after taking a ribbing from my mother-in-law I wonder about my GPS phone and if I should use it at all.  Yet the more I visit Seattle and navigate traffic, the more I like keeping my eyes on the road and having a computer tell me where to go.  Perhaps I simply need to find the GPS sweet spot of when and when not to use it.  Maybe, but I figure this.  If you ever hear of me heading out on a hike with no map or compass but a GPS, you might as well shoot me, for this boy has lost his wits and forgotten the water holes.

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