Getting Lost


Sometimes it is good to get lost.

I’m not what could be considered a serious hiker. Maybe a serious walker. My knees don’t allow the hiking I once was able to do. I can think of two times that I was in the woods and got lost. Actually, I can think of many more times that I did not know where I was at some point, but that’s not the same thing.

In one case, I was walking and did not time my leaving very well with the setting of the sun, so I ended up in darkness.

Everyone knows that roads and trails don’t look the same when you’re on your way out at night as they did when you were on your way in during the daylight.

I was in a woods that I had walked many times before, and I knew that if I walked straight in any direction I would be “out” in an hour or two. And yet, I panicked. I found myself running and following what seemed like a trail, though not a familiar one. And I know those are the wrong things to do.

The other time I was lost it was a bit more serious. I was on a section of the Appalachian Trail with a group, but I hurt my knee and was walking/limping at a snail’s pace. I was slowing down the group. Someone offered me a map with a shortcut back to the parking area (they wanted to finish the loop they were hiking) and I said that they should go on without me and I would head back on my own. Not a good idea on my part, but they went ahead.

We had been hiking for about 2 hours, so it would be at least 2 or 3 hours for me to get back using the shortcut at my slow pace. They had at least 4 hours left to complete the loop.

I headed off and was fine until I hit a long downhill section that was just murder on my knee. Lots of stops, hopping when I could, trying to use my staff as a crutch, and cooling my knee with my water bottle. I think that I was so focused on my knee that I lost the trail. I lost THE trail, but I ended up on some trail.  After 2 hours, I knew I wasn’t passing any of the landmarks on the map. I knew I couldn’t walk back, so I studied the map trying to figure out where I was on it.

Even though I am pretty good with a map and compass, I couldn’t really fix on any landmarks to triangulate where I was sitting.  I took my best guess at the straightest path to the highway near the cars hoping that if I made it there at least the walking would be easier, and I might even hitchhike a ride to the parking lot.

Now I was off the trail. In my head, I ran several scenarios where I just could not walk anymore or would slip, fall, and break something or get knocked unconscious.  How long before the group would miss me?  And wouldn’t they look for me on the shortcut path I was supposed to follow?

Obviously, I did make it out. I actually arrived at the road, walked to the lot and arrived just minutes before the group. My shortcut had taken me about 4 hours. Of course, I told them I had been there for a few hours already, resting my knee and waiting for them to return so that we could go out for dinner and a few beers.


This past week I spotted a new book titled  You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall. It is written by  Colin Ellard,  a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo.

He says that Italian homing pigeons navigate using mental maps which include major highways and railroad tracks. He suggests that people make mental map stories to remember their way.

He says that if we were out in the woods, it doesn’t take far (a few hundred yards off course perhaps) for us to become lost.  Then we find it difficult to know if we are walking in a straight line anymore. We can make remarkable turns and still feel that we are walking in a straight line. We also tend to speed up our movement, so we go farther off course faster.

What should we do when lost?  Stop.

Still, I think it’s a good thing to get lost once in a while. On purpose. Preferably in a place where you won’t die of exposure or be attacked by bears if it takes you 6 hours to get out. And you should follow all those rules about telling someone where you are going, taking a map, some food and water, a cell phone…  Of course, all those things also make it, perhaps, too comfortable. Can you really be lost with all that preparation?

And, there’s always that idea of getting lost in a less literal sense.

In writing, I find it’s a good idea to strike out to lands unknown and get lost a bit, if for no other reason than it feels so good to find yourself.

I have a friend who is being forced into retiring and he’s not dealing well with the situation. He’s lost about what to do with his time and life after 38 years of having it pretty well set on a very clear path day-to-day.

I asked him how long it took him after college to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

“I’m not sure I ever did,” he said.

Of course, he ultimately did. It took him about four years of walking down the path to find the one that worked for those 38 years. Maybe it wasn’t the perfect path, but it was a good one.

“So, why do you think it’s reasonable to expect that after being home for a month that you would know what you want to do with the rest of your life?” I said.  “If you said you were taking the next year to try some things and see what appeals to you, it would sound more realistic.”

I think Bill needs to be lost for a while. He needs his family and friends nearby. Right now, he needs his therapist and some medication too. He is a religious person – a believer – and that should help.

He can consult maps. He can draw his own paths on them too. But he needs, like the rest of us, to be lost too if he is to find himself.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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