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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