Planning is a strange thing—delusional and necessary at the same time. I recently spent a day at El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico. To quote the monument’s website, “The primeval black basalt terrain of El Malpais [which means the badlands] was created by volcanic forces over the past million years. Molten lava spread out over the high desert from dozens of eruptions to create cinder cones, shield volcanos, collapses, trenches, caves, and other eerie formations.”
Because the ground is solid rock, there’s no way to make a trail other than to mark it with cairns. As a directionally-challenged person, I felt somewhat unnerved heading out into this place where I was one cairn away from being lost. In reality, an always visible sandstone ridge indicated the direction of the road, but when I looked ahead and didn’t see the next cairn immediately, my mind started creating stories of being lost in the lava wilderness. “Unprepared hiker dies half mile from the road,” the headlines read.
The next cairn often wasn’t visible until I’d reached the one immediately preceding it. It reminded me of that E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I think all of life is like this. We can plan all we want, but we usually can’t see the next cairn when we’re making the plan. The trail rarely follows the course we prescribe in advance.
But without a plan, without some sense of our eventual destination, we don’t know what direction to set out in, and we might not recognize our cairns along the way. We might even forget to look for them all together.