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hiking ignorantly

September 22, 2021

I was hiking recently with my dad, on a trail he was much more familiar with than I was. He’s 82, and still hiking, which is pretty great. But he’s slowed down quite a bit.

As we were making the difficult trek up, he remarked that the trail we were on was not the original trail. It seemed longer to him, with more switchbacks, more turns. “I think they changed it,” he said.

“Changed it?" I said. "How can they change an entire trail? Maybe you’re just getting older," I told him in half-jest, thinking he, too, was joking. "Maybe it just feels longer.”

“I’m sure they’ve changed it,” he responded in an unexpectedly firm way. “I hike this every year and I don’t remember this many turns.”

I thought he was serious. I looked down at the trail passing by beneath me with every step. The soil was packed down so tight that it had hardened. In some places, the hard, packed earth had cracked, signs of the earth contracting and expanding as seasons change, as snow turns to water and then to ice, only to melt again.

The trail was also wide and worn, like one that can only be years if not decades old – not narrow and fresh the way young trails with relatively new foot traffic tend to be. As I looked around me, I saw no evidence of other trails anywhere nearby. There was no older trail branching off from the trail we were on. There was only one trailhead. Only one way up, and the same way down.

All evidence pointed to the very high likelihood that we were in fact hiking the original trail. Or at least one that my dad had hiked many times before.

I said aloud what I’d concluded. “This trail looks well-developed, and I don’t see any other trails around that could be older. I think this is the original trail.”

“No,” my dad said. “I know the original trail. This is much harder. Much longer. They changed it, and I bet they change it every now and then.”

I didn’t know who “they” were, or what motivation "they" would have for creating a new trail when the old one worked just fine. My dad was drawing conclusions based only on his recollection. Recollections aren’t accurate.

But I also had no absolute proof I was right. I just had evidence that made my conclusion highly likely.

Whether I was right or not wasn't important. But the incident did remind me think of how intensely people will embrace their biases if it means not having to come up against a hard reality - like the reality of aging. When it comes to decision-making, this could be a problem, because the choices we make depend on the information we have, and if our perception of that information is biased, then our decisions won't be that great.

It all made me wonder, "Is my dad capable of making good decisions?"

This conversation with my dad stuck with me, so a few days later, I brought it up. "Dad," I said, "When we were hiking the other day, did you really think they'd changed that trail? Or were you joking?"

He said in a relaxed, matter-of-fact, wasn't-it-obvious tone, "I was joking."

"You were?!" I asked. I was surprised.

"Yes," he said. "I knew that was the original trail. It just wasn't the way I remembered it."

I sat there for a second, then kind of chuckled to myself. My dad delivers a joke pretty well. Too well. But also, it went to show that I was poised to draw conclusions about my dad with poor information. If I hadn't asked him about our conversation, I would have held onto an inaccurate assumption, one that could have informed the wrong decisions regarding him. I'm glad I got corrected.

It never hurts to ask. More than once. It never hurts to keep hunting for evidence. The information we have at our disposal - information we think is robust and complete - is usually only a fraction of what we can and need to know. And when it comes to our decisions, we should want to know more than that.

That is all.

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