When I was in sixth grade, a school unit on orienteering culminated in an afternoon field trip to a local nature preserve. Both classes rode together on the battle-scarred yellow school bus. When we arrived we were split into teams of two, each of which was given a laminated map and a compass. Our map was marked with seven spots. A teacher was stationed at each spot, ready to stamp the card each pair carried. The winning team would make it to all seven spots and return back to where we started first.
My memories of the day are somewhat blurry – I don’t recall who my partner was specifically, for example – but what happened I recall with crystalline clarity.
My partner and I blazed through the first six marks and were, according to the teacher there, the first to reach it. As the sun blazed its late-fall glory overhead, he and I discussed how to get to mark seven and assure our victory. In contrast to the slurry of my memory of this day is how vividly I recall the cornflower blue of the sky and the quality of the late afternoon’s light. We huddled together, heads touching over our laminated map, and saw two options. The first was a long, circuitous path. The second was much shorter, as the crow flies. The only hitch was it was through an area of cross-hatching marked as “uncrossable swamp.”
There was very little debate. We were sure we could cross the swamp. Surely it couldn’t really be uncrossable. We set off. The reeds were tall, and it quickly felt like they closed above our heads. A long time later a teacher, complete with flashlight and bell, had to come and find us in the swamp. We emerged red-faced and embarrassed and came in last.
I never ignored the map again.
I share this (the story of which was the first chapter of a long-put-aside memoir called A Country Without Maps) today because Grace is doing a seventh grade field trip that includes some work with a compass. It feels awfully similar. With a now-familiar sensation, time plays tricks and I tumble down the telescope of memory.
I have not told Grace about the uncrossable swamp. If there is one, today or any other day, she needs to learn that lesson herself.
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