Friday seemed like a great opportunity for such a reality check, so I made the two-hour drive down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park with a friend. (By the way, if you played Cruisin’ USA on N64 as much as my sister and I did as children, driving through redwood forests in real life is pretty much like it is in the game, complete with the self-righteous asshole in a Lexus obnoxiously honking and passing you on a blind curve across a double yellow line. Minus the house music and the flag-waving women in bikinis at the finish line.) Anyway, the weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and about 60 degrees, and since it was a weekday, we basically had the park to ourselves. Millipedes, banana slugs, hollowed-out-tree-womb things you can climb in. We hiked for a couple hours, and then we came to a fork in the road. Time to consult the map. Both being navigationally challenged, neither of us is really qualified to use a map. I made a convincing case that we should turn left, justifying it with all sorts of finger-pointing, map-turning, and overly confident language. Despite his intuition that we needed to turn right, he couldn’t provide a reason, so he shrugged his shoulders and we went my way.
Every time we crossed a real-life-creek, I’d identify it with a corresponding map-creek. When there was a bend in the real-life-trail, I’d point to a bend on the map-trail. Somehow, I managed to bolster my confidence that way for miles. With such a sensible theory, who needs more evidence? What kind of idiot needs to stop and look at the sun to get oriented? It didn’t occur to me to consider the topography, to check if the big hills were on our right or our left. Or to tap into that creepily accurate intuition for which way the ocean is. And maybe the most surprising: I didn’t even bother to use the compass feature on my iPhone. After hiking for an hour on a trail I was convinced would take us fifteen minutes, it was abundantly clear that I was wrong. So I swallowed my pride (maybe more like gagged and choked on it) and we turned back. Luckily, it turned out to be a great hike, though it was about 8 miles instead of the anticipated 4 or 5. My friend was gracious enough not to tease me too much at the time, but I’m sure it will be a while before I hear the end of it.
How could I have been so wrong? Not that I have a particular problem with being wrong on occasion, or with someone else being right. Unless that person is a jerk. But on those occasions, I can usually identify where I went wrong. I can replay the scenario and find the culprit. Maybe it’s a mistaken belief or a lapse in judgment. Maybe I put in three times as much molasses as I was supposed to. The screw that was left over after I assembled my IKEA furniture by myself? Yeah, maybe that was important after all. But looking at the map after the hike, I never did figure out what trail we ended up on or how we went wrong. Often, it’s reasonable to try to figure out where you went wrong in order to avoid making the same mistake again. But when your original mistake was that you ignored obvious evidence because you thought you knew what you were doing, the way to avoid making the same mistake again is to stop trying to figure out where you went wrong and start paying attention to the obvious evidence!
This mirrors my choices in my academic career, in a nauseatingly cheesy metaphor sort of way. But that’s a long story, involving lab coats, guns, and tinker toys, and it deserves its own post. The common theme? I can be really bad at doing what I know is right if I don’t understand why it is right. In fact, I’ll keep doing the opposite, the thing I know is wrong, for a surprisingly long time, just because I can’t figure out why it’s wrong. Like a rat in a maze. But eventually, I throw up my rat hands and recognize that there’s some cosmic course-corrector and, evidently, I’m not it. Sometimes, someone else’s intuition is better than your best logic – especially when it comes to where you are going.
You know that DIRECTV commercial? “When you feel like a winner, you go to Vegas. When you go to Vegas, you lose everything. When you lose everything, you sell your hair to a wig shop.” They’re onto something. When you’re absolutely positive you’ve finally got it all figured out, that’s a great clue that you don’t. Something is about to go wrong, and it’s the cable company’s fault. Fuck the cable company. Don’t sell your hair to a wig shop.