I have found hiking guide books to be ambiguous, overly-flattering of our abilities to leap over mountains and sometimes unabashedly wrong. But no matter how many extra miles astray I have had to go on their account, I still find myself saying “Check the guidebook, I think this might be the gentle left we are looking for.” It is the Great Paradox of Guidebooks.
I imagine it is with this same zeal for authority that the Astor Overland Party thought Lewis and Clark’s accounts would get them over just fine. Except for that part where Lewis & Clark had pissed off the natives so much that choosing to trace their steps was a death sentence. And even though Cabeza de Vaca meticulously recorded his 16th century expedition across the American Southwest in his creatively named book “The Account”, it still took a heap of scholars to unravel the path he might have taken owing to his geographic mad-libs.
Its a great tradition of obfuscation. The guide book is essentially the author’s way of saying they’d been somewhere and daring anyone else to try. Oh, they’ll lure you in with descriptions of gentle slopes and pine strewn humus. But once you 5 miles sweating up a rocky slope their descriptive powers evaporate and leave you with a simple “It should be obvious where to go from here.” In my experience, it has never been obvious. And after marching 9 miles in and out of slot canyons and told to just ‘pick up the trail and you are homefree’ is really maddening. Especially when their is no trail, unless I have a sagebruch machete or that coyote staring at me is the trail guide. (One should be extra cautious of coyotes that sound like Johnny Cash.)
So I’ve compiled some general translations for guidebooks that should help keep being dead at bay.
“Narrow Rock Bridge” – Between 2 and 4 inches of broken rock surrounded on both sides by 12,000 feet of sudden demise. Balrog sightings possible.
“Sunny, exposed trail” – Here the sun be measured in kilo-kelvins. Great pains should be taken to avoid advanced charring of your corpse. Note: above 11k feet the sun is below you and any parcel of flesh you deemed safe from exposure, like your armpits, are fair game. Whatever you do, don’t wear a skirt.
“Light scamble” – You will need to climb on hands and knees over jagged, house-sized boulders and slippery piles of razor-edged shale bits.
“Popular horse trail” – So. Much. Shit.
“Dogs allowed on leash” – The dogs will never be on their leashes. The mean ones will be a good mile ahead of any human they will listen to. The nice ones want to hug you after they rolled in the mud.
“Sharing the trail with mountain bikers” – Collisions guaranteed.
“Steep descent” – You are gunna wanna slide down on your ass.
“Granite staircase” – A jumble of boulders of all sizes. Much like walking over piles of giant legos.
“Wildlife sightings” – Don’t even look at the baby moose. Their mother’s will know and they will find you.
Of course despite the guidebook’s attempts at negligent manslaughter, the adventure is still worth it.