Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Value of Getting Lost

Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there . . . (Invisible Cities p. 28)
A standard piece of advice offered for anyone who is lost, or who has lost something needing to be found, or who seeks to understand how something irrevocably lost ever became so, is to retrace your steps. For situations like these, it would behoove you to remember exactly what it was that came before the moment of disorientation.
I have been lost—in that literal, physical meaning of the word—exactly twice in my life. The first time came years ago, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The wilderness savant of our four person party lay inside a poorly pitched tent that was nearly floating from the heavy rains that filled every defile and drainage with the chill water of New England summers. His ankle broken in three places from a slip on the slick granite on the summit above camp, he could not hike out and we were too few to carry him. My father and I were somewhere on the southern slope of Mount Success, moving downhill and aiming for the small hamlet of Shelburne in order to find help. A mile or so before, we had abandoned the trail that would lead us to Shelburne, for its serpentine route meandered for too many miles. We were short on time before nightfall arrived, so we elected to bushwack and travel cross-country. Before long, we were genuinely lost. The small meadows that we had hoped to serve as bearings had transitioned to high-mountain bogs from the rain earlier in the day. The narrowly braided creeks that we had selected to demarcate deviations too far east or west from our southerly course were gone, subsumed into the larger torrent of water that poured down the mountainside. The landscape was possessed by a great wet sameness, and with that our map became useless, for we could not place ourselves anywhere on it with certainty.
And so to find ourselves, we journeyed—through shared discussion but first through personal memory—back over the features of the ground we had already tread. We brought to mind details that we had failed to notice before, recalled prior points of interest on the map that we had passed by absent any recognition. Before long, we declared ourselves found, and carried on our way. By nightfall, we had reached Shelburne, and sent for help.
There is a value to being lost that Calvino identifies in the short passage above, and that I experienced for myself in New Hampshire. The shear enormity of detail that you miss on your travel from one point to another on a map staggers the mind. When the purpose of travel is geared solely towards a particular destination, too much of what is seen and felt on the peripheral edges of our journey goes unrecognized. When you are lost—when you endeavor to retrace your prior steps—you ultimately discover aspects to your travels that you might never have found otherwise. The sameness is broken up and becomes overwhelmed with vibrant and distinctive features. When you are lost, you often find more than yourself.

Words merely represent experience. The experience is not the description of it. (Black Rainbow p. 85)

The second time that I was lost came two years ago, on a backpack across a small peninsula in southwest Ireland. The experience was slightly different from my first. My companion and I had passed through the small village of Lispole on the main road to Dingle, but from there our route cut north into the farm country that fills the countryside and drifts seamlessly upward into the mountains. We were looking for a red stile that crossed the wall of alternating hedge and stone to our right. After an hour of walking, I declared that we must have missed it, and needed to stop to examine the map.
The map was no help at first. Too many of the names and places on it were in the native language that I was only conversationally familiar with. There was, however, a rather thorough route description that our travel company had furnished for our benefit. Mile marker by mile marker, feature by feature, this description depicted every step we took along the way. My companion recommended that we use it, but it dawned on me that I did not need it.
I did not need the route description because since my time spent in New Hampshire, I had learned to travel ever-vigilant of even the smallest details. I did not need the route description because—and this is a sentiment appealed to by Wendt in the passage above— my experience of what had come before on our journey was of higher quality than whatever words were chosen to represent the trip on a piece of paper. Whereas in New Hampshire I needed to search out the details that I had missed in my mind, this time around all of my experiences of the Irish countryside stayed current with me. The blue heron that took flight down the creek as we passed; the sheep that milled about a busted fence but never strayed; the way that the grass on the north side of a hill was a subtlety different shade of green from the blades that blanketed the eastern, western, and southern sides; these were all experiences that now prevented me from being lost at all. I knew what had come before with each footstep, and so I knew where we must be. I retrieved the map and placed us on it straight away. We were found. 

And if you’re lost enough to find yourself / By now . . . (Robert Frost, Directive)

A quick search for the etymology of the term “lost” turns up the fact that this adjective around the year 1500 assumed the meaning “wasted, spent in vain”. That is a conception of the term that might appeal heartily to Calvino and Wendt. They might argue—and I would tend to agree—that you become lost only when you choose to focus on the disconnection between yourself and where you are or where it is that you are going. That to focus on the disconnections of the present and future is to ignore all the connections that you have to your past experiences, connections to whatever has come before in life or on a certain trip. They might argue that a compass bearing is a relationship between two points on a map, and so if you truly know the place that you have come from you might more easily come to find the place that you now are. Calvino and Wendt both argue for the value of an active and engaged life, and so the real danger of being lost is to become passive in the present and disengaged from your past.

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