The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost

I detest driving with a GPS. Lump me in with those stick-shift-in-the-city manual-transmission-pain-in-the-necks whose car you can never borrow, but automatic navigation does not represent technological progress. That is, if automatic navigation can be called navigation at all.

If I ever get a smart phone, I will delete the app that gives direction to whatever typed-in destination. Once I figure out how to do that I would probably proceed to delete that same app from the smart phones of all my friends. If I ever get a car, and for some misguided reason you bring your Global Personal Security system inside, I will throw it out the window and proceed to run it — and your desperate fetching hand of retrieval — over.

Fortunately for my reputation as a non-disgruntled, productive member of society, I have neither a smart phone nor a car.

No, it is not those tinny computer voices that are the problem. I am no robophobe, in fact, I am quite secure enough in my humanity that I am okay having a machine talk to me.

Rather, my problem has to do with that red line being beamed in from the sky, tethering my car to the open road like a railroad track. The issue underlying it all, the implicit philosophy of GPS navigation? The unjust sacrifice of the journey for the destination.

It is not as if I go blind. Before heading out the door, there is usually at least a cursory glance at a map to at least get a basic sense of whether I am going north or southeast or up a mountain or whatever. I scribble down notes on how to get there on the back of a receipt or something.

But I try, as much as possible, to leave some room for going off track.

Some of my longest solo drives are up and down the southern Washington portion of Interstate 5. I often take a stop or two along the way. A few years ago on a northbound trip, I stopped in the town of Castle Rock to get a bite to eat. I was about to eat at Burger King because it was on my internal “map” of safe and predictable eating establishments, but then my eyes caught that over and beyond the Whopper billboard was a local burger joint. Fifteen minutes later I was enjoying a tasty elk burger at C & L Burger.

About a year or two later I was driving southbound on Interstate 5 and just wanted to get out of the car for a while. So I followed a hunch and returned to Castle Rock for a short walk. In what was no more than a fifteen minute adventure, I found an obnoxiously misspelled traffic signa neat forested trail which surprisingly led to walking on top of a giant mound of ash which I suppose came from when Mount St. Helens erupted. I wanted to keep looking around, but I had a place to be by a certain time and so my meanderings were cut short.

Sometimes it seems as if I want to get lost.

Today, lost is a mild four-letter word. She lost her keys, he lost a game, we lost our minds. Those who do not believe in the truth, they are lost. People lost in the wilderness have a tendency to die. Our postmodern culture is so obsessed with context that if we do not have a relative idea of where we are, we might as well not exist (What’s that thing on the internet called? Foursquare?).

Yet, I persistently find myself wanting to escape the latitudinal-longitudinal cage and being able to say “Hey, I don’t know where I am right now, and that’s okay.”

I began teasing the possibility of being lost during daily runs while studying abroad in Sweden. I had a map of the city of Jönköping in my room, and when I came back from a run I would use a permanent marker to trace where I had gone. Always coming back with something to trace, I can say that over those four months I explored a new part of the city at least every time I laced up my running shoes.

But Jönköping is not an easy city to navigate. Most of the planned streets are the motorvägar that are not a whole lot of fun to run on. Everything else is a byproduct of centuries of history trying to fit onto the expansive rolling topography.

If I was going to keep up my mission of going somewhere new on every run, it was inevitable that I was going to get lost on just about every run. Even if I wrote down directions, I would either make a mistake along the way or see some deer trail that looked more interesting than the way I had planned on going.

I grew to embrace the thrill of moving forward while not knowing where I was. One of my favorite – and longest – runs in Jönköping was when, after quite a number of miles along the coastline of Vättern, I turned landward and ran through the neighborhood of Österängen. Once I knew that I no longer knew where I was, I oriented myself westward and starting running an unknown route across the valley back to Mariebo with one simple rule — no backtracking. Hope I get there before the sun sets.

Without knowing where this place may be, it becomes easier to notice what this place is. When the way back is uncertain, marked only by hunches, the human attention turns outward. Every rooftop, treetop, cloud, street sign and lamppost becomes a hint for finding the way back. The details that did not matter suddenly do. The faces and dress of people give a hint of the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and there has been at least one time in my running career that I have found my back not by cartography but by demography.

And, of course, once familiar ground has once again been found, the sigh of relief is tinged with bitter disappointment that the adventure could have gone another mile or two longer and everything would have still been alright.

What would it look like if we trusted our hunches more often? Sure, we might end up going the wrong direction a couple more times, but that just means we turn around or (with a lump of courage) press forward and take the scenic route. How bad can it be to sometimes lose our way when we have a whole world to gain?

Perhaps I should be careful. With an attitude like that, it is quite possible that one of these days I will actually end up lost somewhere. So, if you ever are charged with the task of looking for me, especially if I was supposed to be coming from some direction on I-5, I would recommend first checking out the Castle Rock area. After you find me sitting on top of some random place in the area, we can go and get elk burgers from C & L together.

The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost

10 thoughts on “The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost

  1. Really well-written! I’m glad Abi posted that link on FB 🙂 If only I had the patience and imagination you talk about here. I got lost in Izmir, Turkey by myself, and ended up wandering in circles for an hour. The strongest emotion I felt during that relatively brief time was intense frustration, because it was night and I didn’t know when I would find the hotel. But it’s good to hear a different viewpoint!


    1. Aaron – I never really thought about what being lost in a place like Izmir, where I think I would have stuck out a bit more and not have been so “fly-on-the-wall” lost. There is a difference between being lost and looking lost, for sure. That could have challenged me a bit more! Thanks for your perspective.

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