In defense of getting lost
Nov 11, 2009 | 9249 views | 0 0 comments | 1473 1473 recommendations | email to a friend | print

The state of “being lost” does not have a positive connotation in the minds of most of us nowadays and it’s true, it can be a terrifying and even deadly experience.

I recall the first time I got lost—I was just three and on a shopping trip to a local department store with my mother. She was trying on a dress and I grew bored after a while, sitting on a bench with my legs dangling while other mothers came by and pinched me on the cheek.

I could smell the aroma of fresh roasted nuts somewhere and I followed my nose as children often do. Suddenly I realized, from my perspective, just two and a half feet above the carpet, that I could no longer see my mother.

I can still remember the moment of absolute terror that gripped me as I spun frantically in all directions, searching for the sight of that familiar face.

Before I could even begin to get too hysterical though, I heard mom’s voice and followed it back home to the comfort and security of her arms.

I suppose all children experience something similar and perhaps that’s why we spend the rest of our lives trying to avoid getting lost again. But is it as bad as we have convinced ourselves? Is getting lost always something we should fear and dread?

And do we truly understand what “getting lost” means?

Once, on a Stiles Family Vacation, we were on our way to Clearwater Beach, FL, in the pre-interstate highway days, and my dad had to negotiate the streets of Atlanta. We made a few wrong turns and I could hear him losing patience as we began to travel in circles.

“Are we lost?” I asked my dad anxiously.

“NO!” he said. “I am NOT lost... I just don’t know where we are.”

Very often that’s the case. He knew he’d find his way out of Atlanta eventually, even if it took the rest of the afternoon and only after he’d relinquished a bit of his manhood by asking a local for directions. Still he wasn’t lost.

And there was an upside to our misadventure. We saw parts of Atlanta that we would have otherwise missed and the gentleman who found us on the map and pointed us straight was an interesting character that we would have otherwise never met. Being “lost” was at least more interesting than if we’d sailed smoothly through town without a hitch.

Now, not only is it difficult to get lost or misplaced on a road trip, it’s damn near impossible. Interstate freeways bypass cities and small towns alike, though I suppose a few inept souls could get lost in the endless loop of a cloverleaf interchange.

If we need directions, there’s little hope of finding an interesting character to quiz; the best we can dream of, since they’re located at nearly every freeway exit from New York to L.A., is the blank and disinterested stare of a McDonalds trainee.

Tens of million Americans have installed GPS units in their vehicles, so they don’t even need to consult the road atlas. Instead a metallic dispassionate “voice” tells us where to go. I’d like to turn the tables someday and tell a GPS unit “where to go,” but I suspect the conversation would go nowhere.

The brutal predictability of daily life is, in fact, the reason more of us seek something different in the rural backways of America. But here again, our fear of getting lost has taken the fun and adventure out of the very experience we seek.

Aldo Leopold said, “To what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

But guidebook writers, whose literary endeavors stand toe-to-toe with the lofty rhetoric of used car salesmen, are determined to make short change of those blank spots in short order.

One writer, so prolific at his craft that’s he’s almost made himself extinct, asked a friend of mine, “Can you think of other places that need guidebooks? You know...where people would pay money?” There was a hint of desperation in his voice.

Portable GPS units and cell phones have made backcountry hiking and four-wheeling about as revelatory as a trip to the mall. Lost? Check your GPS unit. Lost with a broken ankle or the Jeep’s stuck in mud up to its axles? Call a tow truck or the ambulance on your cell phone after you figure your location on your GPS.

Some adventure. Search & Rescue teams don’t even get to hone their tracking skills anymore. At this rate, they’ll start getting lost as well.

And if all that life-saving technology is too intimidating, the catered backcountry tour offers the safest option of all. Nobody’s going to get lost on a four hour tour when they pay $150 for the experience.

Getting your customers lost is...well, it’s just bad business. And be sure of this, the commercial exploitation of wilderness in the American West will someday send cold shivers down the spines of earnest environmentalists who failed to see the threat in the early 21st Century.

Ultimately, the fear of getting lost has more to do with our rapidly diminished self-reliance than anything else. Our inability to take care of ourselves, to be responsible for our own safety and well-being, has left many of us fearful of and intimidated by the Great Unknown. We long for a Mystery, are inspired by Adventure, but we don’t even know what they are anymore.

Packaged and marketed beyond recognition.

For myself, I don’t particularly long to be lost in the irreversible sense, but I love it when I don’t know where I am. Try it sometime—it may be a transcendental experience.

(Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr -- Planet Earth Edition” now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West.” Both can be found at Stiles lives in San Juan County and can be reached at
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