You Don't Know What You Don't Know

mount baldy view ski hut

I recently started taking a Wilderness Travel Course. It's put on by the Sierra Club, and it's ten weeks of learning the basics about gear, safety, conditioning, and navigation. The latter focuses on being able to use a compass and topography map in tandem, mostly for the sake of being able to go off trail and stay found, and it's the main reason I signed up for the class.

Looking at my pictures, you might think these are things I already know. And I do, to a certain extent; I've been going camping since I was a little kid and have been on countless day hikes and other outdoor adventures. But I wouldn't necessarily say that I've ever been competent or prepared while participating in any of these activities; usually I've relied on others who know what they're doing, or have just kind of muddled my way through. But I've decided I'm done with that. I'm going to learn shit so I know my shit and can do the shit I want to do. 

Learning shit is, for me, easier said than done. I never loved school, because I never felt incredibly excited about any of the courses I was taking (with the exception of my sociology classes, hence the sociology major). I took them to get a good grades and graduate, and treated the whole endeavor as just another thing to check off of life's to-do list. Looking back, I'm not sure how much knowledge I actually retained. I didn't know what I was interested in at that point. Hell, I didn't begin to understand what piqued my interest until a couple of years ago, and even now I still don't have it all figured out. 

But there's something more insidious and harder to control that makes learning such a pain in the ass for me: pride. 

I'm not exactly sure where this pridefulness of mine comes from, but I do recall it starting to flourish in college. I was suddenly exposed to activities and ideas that I didn't understand, and that lack of understanding embarrassed me. I was so terrified of not immediately being an expert and looking stupid that I avoided new things I was interested in but knew nothing about instead of getting out of my comfort zone to learn more about them. When I think about it, that's been a common theme throughout my life, and is probably the reason I never allowed myself to excel at anything I did, be it piano, or sports, or anything creative: I wasn't willing to be bad at something before I could be good at it. 

This prideful tendency was exacerbated by various people, scattered here and there throughout my college years, who actually confirmed my fear that lack of knowledge equated lesser worth - interestingly, the majority of these were males. A boyfriend made me feel lazy and undesirable because I didn't share his fitness fanaticism; a guy I liked teased me about my frisbee-throwing skills; a friend told me he was surprised I wanted to try out rock climbing because I "didn't seem like that kind of person". These encounters made my pride rear its ugly head, which made me get defensive and shy away from trying anything new. 

Then college ended, and I lived abroad for a few months, worked a corporate desk job, started a photography business, and eventually moved across the country to a completely new city. With each experience, I came to the same realization over and over again: I am capable. Almost no activity worth doing is inherent. Even if a person is born with certain traits that help them excel at something, they still have to start somewhere. Some people are lucky enough to start young, so that when they hit their teens and twenties, they're proficient at their chosen task, whether it be running or writing or dancing or photography. Others start later in life, but that doesn't mean that they can't eventually master whatever it is they want to do. The key is to start - and then keep going.

So, back to the Wilderness Travel Course. Part of me felt stupid for telling people I was taking the course, because in saying I needed to learn about wilderness travel, I was admitting there were things I didn't know. This, I realize, is ludicrous. After all, how am I supposed to know something if I've never learned it? Not having yet learned something is not something to be ashamed of; wanting to learn something but letting your pride get in the way is.  

You don't know what you don't know, and the only way to come to know it is to take the time to learn it. And the only way to do that is to start at the beginning, ask the questions, make mistakes, and slowly inch your way forward. I did that with photography, and it was uncomfortable, and I felt like an idiot, and I thought I was never going to get any better, and then...I did. And I started to realize that process could be applied to anything I decide I want to do. 

In class this week we started learning how to use our compasses and topography maps, and I'm fairly certain that every student, myself included, was a bit overwhelmed. The beauty of this course is that it is adult education, which is something I had never experienced before. Everyone in the class is taking it because they actually want to learn; they paid money to gain a specific set of skills and knowledge, and they are okay with the fact that they don't know anything yet, because they have confidence that that will change by the end of the course. It is the most supportive learning environment I've ever been a part of. It's refreshing to be in a group of people fumbling through the same material as you, struggling with the numbers and concepts and asking the same questions you need answered even though they seem ridiculously basic.

And they are basic, because we're beginners, and that's okay. 

The photos in this post are from a day hike on Mount Baldy that Toby and I went on this past Sunday with our friend Aaron. Mount Baldy is a mountain. It is tall. The summit is at an elevation of 10,068'. However, we didn't make it to the summit. We made it to about 9300', just above the treeline, after scrambling up a super steep couple hundred feet of trail that was covered in icy snow. It was later than we had planned, and the second we left the cover of the trees, the wind whipped at us mercilessly and we saw that clouds were gathering, blocking out the warmth of the sun. We contemplated continuing on, but in the end, I decided that it was probably in our best interest to head back down and come back another day when had more time on our hands and were better prepared for the elements. 

It was frustrating not to make it to the top. It felt like failure. But then I remembered that we had still climbed up the side of a mountain, and the views were still incredible, and I was outside breathing in fresh air and my legs were deliciously exhausted and I felt alive. Getting to the top is great, but process of getting there is just as rewarding.

I'm headed off on an 11-mile conditioning hike up the side of Mount Wilson with my classmates tomorrow morning. If you want to find us, we'll be the nerdy people with our maps attached to clipboards and compasses extended out in front of us at eye level, navigating our way up the very obviously marked trail. I'm pretty stoked. Pictures to come. 

Happy Friday, friends.