March 12, 2024

On Being Lost

The times we have gone off trail and became “turned around a bit” have all been times of discovery.

With affordable and widely available GPS units and turn-by-turn directions as a feature of smartphones, getting lost in urban areas and cities is a thing of the past. A broad swath of society has become totally dependent on this technology.

Being in the true wilderness is an entirely different situation.

Cellphones lose their signal, and satellite reception to GPS units can be spotty or nonexistent. I honestly believe I could take any member of the generation that grew up totally dependent on electric technology, blindfold him, take him a couple hundred yards into a forest with nothing but a compass, spin him around a few times, and leave him — and he may well be lost until luck or rescue gets him back to civilization.

I never enter the forest without a good understanding of the area, a map, a compass, and a knife. In fact, the Randall knife that has been on my belt for decades has a small compass embedded in the stag handle as a backup. The philosophy of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst was once standard practice. For me, this mindset was born from my father insisting early on that I know how to navigate and take care of myself in the woods.

We frequented the forests and fields on hunting trips and the flooded Cypress swamps of north Florida on fishing trips from the time I was six years old. Periodically, my father would ask, “Can you get back to the truck from here?” or, “Can you navigate back to the dock from here?”

It became a challenge, and I began to memorize landmarks, turns, elevations, and distances traveled. At 10 years old, I got a compass for my birthday and learned how to use it to plot courses on maps, account for declination, and shoot an azimuth when navigating.

It is an old habit now.

My wife, with whom I have shared countless wilderness adventures, is of like mind. In her aviation days as both a recreational and corporate pilot, she always preferred sectional maps and plotters to modern electronics. She still does.

Having a competent and positive partner in the wilderness is just as valuable as a good compass and knife, and attitude counts. So on the few occasions Mary and I have found ourselves lost, she, of positive outlook, simply maintained that we were “turned around a bit.” I thought we were lost. But arguing with your wife about whether you’re lost or turned around falls into the galactically stupid category for me.

We marshal our software and hardware skills and eventually get back to our starting point. Mary relies on instinct, experience, and an innate sense of direction, and I lean on my map and compass.

The times we have gone off trail and become “turned around a bit” have all been times of discovery.

Once, in the Cherokee National Forest, we went far off the trail and happened upon one of the most dramatic areas of deep, dark woods I have ever encountered. The walking was easy, but the canopy was so thick it was like hiking at dusk, although it was the middle of the day. A singular bolt of sunlight filtering through the canopy illuminated maybe 300 square feet of forest floor in front of us — just to remind us it really was daylight.

In the 1980s, while traveling to California via a northern route of secondary roads, I missed a turn and became disoriented in the vicinity of Spanish Fork, Utah. I had been driving all night, and the sun was just coming up. I had been traveling on backroads, as even then, I avoided the sterile interstate whenever possible. Consulting my map, I figured that if I stayed on this backroad and kept linking it with roads going in a westerly direction, I would eventually intersect a main route.

Topping a mesa a while later, I happened on an adobe building that appeared to be a Mexican restaurant. There were tables outside with a beautiful windswept view. I sat down outside with my great Labrador Retriever Field Trial dog beside me and waited.

A kind lady came out to wait on me. She didn’t speak English. No one present there that morning did. There was no menu. Through a somewhat comical series of gesticulations of me pointing at my watch and then my stomach, she determined I wanted breakfast, and off she went inside. A few minutes later, I was presented with one of the most authentic and memorable meals I had ever consumed. She even brought a hamburger patty and a bowl of water for my dog.

I’ve often pondered the trajectory of that day had I done the safe and sensible thing of backtracking to a main route. Forty years later, I still vividly recall that meal and the view from that mesa.

Traveling slowly and exploring the area, we slept that night on the salt flats near Barro, Utah, under a spectacular night sky.

Lesson learned: Get out there. Get lost. Have fun and find the unique that few ever see. You’ll eventually find your way back.


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