What I’ve Found By Getting Lost

Feb 25, 2010 | Advice for Adventurers, Spirit of Adventure

I only remember two recurring nightmares from childhood. In one, I was with my mom in the greeting card aisle of a store, and when I turned around she was gone. I searched for her in a series of rooms where I had to overcome bizarre obstacles. In the end, I walked out onto a sidewalk crowded with giant adults. I never found her. This is normal for a preschooler: the fear of getting lost.

In real life, I often got separated from Mom at White Front, our neighborhood’s old version of the “Mart That Shall Not Be Named.” I always cried, but after the first couple of times I wasn’t that scared. I only let the tears flow because I knew it would bring help running. An employee would lead me behind a counter, usually off-limits, and someone would announce: “Attention please: we have a lost little girl…” All that fuss over me. I loved it.

All that fuss over me. I loved it.

Then came that terrifying night when I was 18, and I drove to downtown Los Angeles alone for the first time. I spent three hours exiting and entering countless freeways in a winding urban sprawl. I cruised the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu. I wandered Sherman Oaks. In a scary part of what I think was North Hollywood, I did a three-point turn to escape, and bumped a parked car. The long, black, luxury sedan looked way out of the neighborhood’s price range, so I didn’t stop to check for damage, but tore off before the local drug lord could catch me.

I never did find the hotel conference I was looking for. When I hit a familiar freeway, I drove straight to my boyfriend’s house and told him about my adventure. I’d learned that uncertainty wasn’t fatal. I never again panicked over getting lost.

Not that I enjoy getting lost when I have an appointment, or I’m in a gang area, or my car is low on gas, or I’m hiking and I’m low on water. But even then, I rarely panic. I’ve found it doesn’t help, and can even hurt.

More often, getting lost is an opportunity for discovery. I’ve found new routes to old places, restaurants I want to try, old villagers curious to talk to the stranger in town. Sometimes it’s simply an opportunity to shift my focus from the destination to the journey.

When I trekked through Asia and Europe, I got lost at least once a day, almost every day – for eight months. In Venice, it was almost a goal.

In Venice, getting lost was almost a goal.

Once, as I walked along the Venetian canals, I encountered a caravan of motorboats decked with flowers, weighed down almost to sinking with excess people. Someone played a guitar. Everyone sang with gusto. A gondola brought up the rear, carrying a bride and groom so childlike they looked like a Precious Moments® wedding cake topper. I tried to keep up, turning this way and that, until I was completely turned around.

I stopped at one of Venice’s many buildings atop which white marble saints flew against a blue sky. I sat on the ground of the tiny piazza and wrote in my journal. A dazed couple stopped to ask if I knew where we were. Having walked to the nearby waterfront before settling here, I felt confident we were near the Piazza San Marco. Another nervous couple heard me giving directions and asked me to repeat them. I generously complied. A short time later I walked to the waterfront to head for San Marco. I hit a dead end.

But I still felt certain I wasn’t far off. I figured I simply needed to skirt a few buildings before I’d see San Marco in the distance. I hit another dead end.

I wandered a hopeless maze of dead ends. It was a warm summer day, so it’s not as if I’d be found frozen to death come morning and spend eternity haunting Venice with Jack Nicholson. Still, I felt guilty for letting those unsuspecting tourists rely on clueless Miss Smarty Pants for directions.

After vowing never to dispense directions in Venice again, I shook off the guilt. So, I was lost. I remembered Rick Steve’s advice: if you’re tempted to panic while wandering the canals of Venice, just tell yourself, “I’m on an island and I can’t get off.” I’d mentioned this to a fellow visitor on my first night, and he’d corrected me, “Actually, it’s 117 islands.” Mr. Literal Pants.

I took a figurative breath and kept my eyes peeled for new sights, while staying alert for old ones. I saw a wall that looked familiar, but couldn’t find a way around it.

When I finally reached the other side, I discovered impressive white lions guarding the stone tower of an old Jesuit monastery. I bought a stale sandwich at a nearby café and put my search on hold, while I lazed in the sun and wrote in my journal again. Refreshed, I renewed my casual search.

Of course I found the Piazza San Marco. Did you doubt I would?

I still get lost all the time. When I’m lost and alone, I discover more about myself, as my mind skips down internal paths, pondering 101 uses for a bandana or the purpose of my life. When I hike with my husband, Dale, we often end up on the wrong trail, so we take the road less traveled, get more exercise, or happen on a deer we might otherwise have missed. What did we miss on the other trail? Who cares? We’re not there. We’re here – and as long as we know that, we’re not truly lost.

When I hike with my husband, Dale, we often end up on the wrong trail (though we didn’t in Peru’s Lares Valley, where we followed a guide).

Just as not all who wander are lost, not all who are lost are losers. In fact the lost might discover what someone with a perfect sense of direction might miss: the unexpected.

What was the second nightmare from my childhood? The boy next door touched a finger to my house and made it collapse, barely giving my family time to crawl out. Now that was scary.


Do you fear getting lost, or do you find that’s when the discovery begins?

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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