Field Notes: What the Outdoors Has Taught Me About Life and Business

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau

This year, my wife and I pledged to visit a national or state park each month. For us, it would be a fun family adventure to explore nature and to find a bit of peaceful refuge from the normal hectic pace of two working parents and three young kids.  

Much like Thoreau, I turn to the woods to live more deliberately. I haven’t always been so inclined, but over the past three years, my family and I have found a peaceful retreat in the woods. Outside, I feel little, dwarfed by the immense beauty and peace, and the worries and anxiety I carry with me slowly fade.  Whether on the top of a mountain or at a bustling campsite with my family, I gain perspective.

On our most recent trip to Roan Mountain, I was reminded my outdoor adventures often reinforce lessons not that different from those we encounter each and every day… in life, in relationships, and in business.

For this and the following two posts, I will share a few reminders from the trails of Roan Mountain.

It’s Best to Have a Map

Leading up to the trip, my wife and I researched trails on either side of Carver’s Gap, which roughly divides Roan Mountain into two sections and is a popular access point to the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the mountain.  Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t remotely find a detailed map of the mountain trails. So instead, we jotted down notes on paper with distances and approximate starting points.  But did we really need a map?  All we had to do was follow the trail and keep an eye out for blazes.

Our intended destination on the first day was the world’s largest natural rhododendron garden.  However, the most direct route to the trailhead was closed until April. Never fear, though, we had read this may be the case, and we knew we could hike the AT up to the gardens. And so we left, following the white blazes of the AT. The only problem: we had no map and left our notes in the car.

After gaining 700 feet in elevation over 1.5 miles and hiking over solid sheets of ice, we found ourselves at the highest AT shelter at Roan High Knob; however, there was no sign of the rhododendron gardens.  Instead, we were at the peak of the mountain with no map and no indication of the right direction or distance remaining. We spent what felt like 20 minutes roaming the shelter site for a sign or trail.  

Roan Mountain

Fortunately, we encountered a thru-hiker, who smartly consulted his AT guidebook and informed us we still had another 1.5 miles to go just to reach the garden trailhead. There was no way we could make it.  The hike had already taken longer than expected, and with three children (two of which were on foot), we had to turn around. Admittedly, I descended the mountain with a degree of disappointment. Had we only brought a map with us, perhaps then my expectations would have been different, and we would not have spent 20 minutes needlessly searching for the garden in freezing wind gusts.

Just as on the mountain, I am reminded of the importance of knowing where you are going… to have a map. Not just one map… we need a map for every trial of life: a budget to help guide our personal finances, a Bible to serve as our spiritual guide, a career plan for our professional goals. Businesses also need maps, but these maps guide not just one person, but an entire group of employees and stakeholders: a corporate strategy, financial budget, staffing plan, etc.  

Without a map, we may simply find ourselves walking and thinking we can reach our goals but not certain the distance remaining or even if we are on the right path. If you are anything like me, there are times I have to turn around and reset just as we did when we descended the mountain. And, in most cases, it’s never too late to create your own map or find your guidepost. I plan to revisit Roan Mountain and reach those rhododendron gardens, but this time I will certainly take a map.