The Art of Being Lost

Finding yourself starts with admitting that you're lost.

Posted Jan 25, 2021

I took off from Echo Lakes in the Desolation Wilderness just behind south Lake Tahoe and hiked six miles up to a place called Aloha Lake, set in a stunning granite bowl backdropped by snow-capped peaks. I spent a long, luxurious day there, swimming and scrambling and enjoying my first taste of unsheltered life since the pandemic began.

On my way back down, only moments after leaving Aloha Lake, I got disoriented. This isn't hard to do in Desolation. The signage there is abysmal, and the terrain largely granite, on which it's hard to discern a trail.

The rest was my own damn fault. At the first indication that I was disoriented, I should have backtracked and reoriented myself or, God forbid, asked someone for directions. But I didn't, and within half an hour, I was royally lost in the very big wilderness, heading down an entirely different canyon than the one I had ascended that morning, and completely off-trail. 

After two hours, I finally reached a series of small lakes and a group of backpackers, who told me I was another three hours to Route 50—all the daylight I had left. The truly unnerving possibility of having to spend a night out there suddenly bloomed in my mind.

When I finally reached Route 50, at dusk—seven miles and three canyons away from my starting point—I tried hitchhiking back to my car, but after half an hour with no luck, I realized I was hitchhiking during a plague, and no one was going to let a stranger into their car.

I did manage to get someone to call Highway Patrol for me, which called Search and Rescue, which sent a cop out to meet me. He couldn't give me a lift—liability issues—but called a taxi. Half an hour and 50 bucks later, I was back at my car, having survived what I don't think it would be a stretch to call a harrowing ordeal.

In the aftermath, I was not just physically but emotionally rattled, though, in the near-stupor of those post-traumatic days, I also had the luxury of considering the metaphysical aspects of the ordeal: Why did I get lost, and does it mean anything?

Knowing how the unconscious is usually a step ahead of the conscious mind—the one that supposedly knows things—I suspect there was more going on here than met the eye. And being a student of synchronicity—the experience of inner states being mirrored by outer events—I concluded that this incident had a clear analog in my psyche. I feel lost.

Partly this is a result of an event that's blown a lot of us off-course—the pandemic, which has pulled the vocational rug out from under me, eviscerated much of my social life, and faced me with the looming question of “Now what?” 

But it's also something more, something I've been grappling with for several years, ever since turning 60, which did something to me that 50 did not—waving the ammonia of mortality under my nose. It's appropriate, then—if not darkly comic—that I would find myself lost in a place called Desolation.

Maybe it's just the nature of transition, especially the sort of existential befuddlement typical of, say, midlife or retirement, but lately, I've found myself between worlds. Between the priorities of work and love, doing and being, résumé virtues and eulogy virtues, those devoted to earthly success and those devoted to emotional and spiritual fulfillment.

All I know is that I've felt disoriented these last few years, cut loose from my moorings, even disenchanted as in the breaking of a spell, signaling that a time has come to reconsider what I've always thought to be so.

I've always thought, for instance, that I had to be self-reliant at all costs and have prided myself on being a freelancer, solopreneur, and outsider. But my over-reliance on rugged individualism clearly played a starring role in getting me lost in the wilderness. 

I've always thought, too, that I have a great sense of direction, yet wilderness that big and complex scrambled my compass but good. In the grander scheme of things, my limitations are thrown into high relief.

Making peace with life is partly about making peace with limitations, something my fellow baby boomers are undoubtedly learning as well, since 10,000 of us are turning 65 every day, as I did this fall, and certainly experiencing the limitations of time, talent, love, and security, the breakdown of expectations, and the shattering of lifelong illusions—I'm special; anything is possible; there's plenty of time; I am my work; someday I'll “arrive”; truth will out; money is security. (“A false sense of security is the only kind there is,” says mythologist Michael Meade.) 

I'm sadder but wiser, yet I sense this wisdom can bring me back into the right relationship with myself and the world. Maybe I have to surrender the boundlessness of my aspirations and offer a humble bow to my limitations, and maybe it’s a surrender that feels like defeat, like I've lost the trail, but it’s also a kind of liberation. I know better where I stand with life.

“Stand still,” writes David Wagoner in his poem “Lost.” “The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.”

If I could welcome the unpredictable nature of life, if not even take a certain delight in it—I, who claim to enjoy the element of surprise—I'd surely roll with the punches better. If I could remember that chaos means “to be wide open”—it doesn't mean disorder; it means unshaped life, the very essence of potential—I'd kick up a lot less dust. In fact, in the Western world's central creation story (Genesis), Chaos with a capital "C" is described as the condition of the Earth before it was formed—chaos precedes creation. Feeling lost—being lost—has been an unavoidable part of my journey and often the starting point for ultimately transformative experiences of “finding myself.” 

I figure if I'm lost, I might as well be lost and not necessarily try to immediately get found, get back to terra cognita. As Wendell Berry says, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

There was a moment during my ordeal when I stumbled and fell, but rather than immediately get up and barrel on, I sat cross-legged on the ground and took a few deep breaths, letting it sink in that I was lost and scared, though everything in me told me to get up and keep moving, to bring laser focus and grim determination to bear on what I'd by then concluded was a survival situation. Not that that wasn't in order and didn't ultimately help get me found again. It clearly did. But intuition bade me sit still for a moment and give composure a little time to catch up with the sudden turn of events.

Maybe a survival situation isn't the time to be contemplative, but maybe it's precisely the time. “Stand still,” I heard Wagoner telling me. “The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.”

I confess that my inner cynic smirks at this. What if the forest doesn't come looking for me? What if I stand around waiting for deliverance, and the sun goes down on me out here? But I know what Wagoner means. He means that when I feel lost, take a moment to let my soul catch up with me.

But it isn't only my inner experience of darkness and drift that Wagoner is inviting me to seek. It's also the outer experiences that can help ground me. Part of dealing with feeling lost is turning some attention toward those people and practices—in my case, journaling, piano playing, dreamwork, friendship, love, deep conversation, gratitude, nature—that help me feel grounded and close to the center of myself. Passions and involvements in which I can, ironically, lose myself. And to engage with these things not for the sake of distraction but traction. To ground myself, get a grip on myself. 

Still, it's hard to stand still when I want to bolt, as if I could work up the escape velocity necessary to escape from myself. Hard to sit on my ass in the dirt and just feel what I feel—lost, scared, stuck, and angry with myself for the wrong turns I've taken. Hard to feel the weight of what once worked but no longer does, or even the shame of getting lost, of admitting that I'm not on my game when in truth, I'm questioning the very nature of the game itself. 

But the act of standing still in the Here and the Now, the act of admitting (in both senses of the word—owning up to and allowing in) that I feel lost, may not just lead to a shift but actually be the shift toward home. It's not just the prayer for help; it is the help. 

There’s a reason the words travel and travail are related, both coming from a word meaning to torture. Maybe it arises from the difficulties and dangers inherent in ancient travel, but in the traditions of pilgrimage and vision quests, hardships aren't considered accidental but integral to the journey. Treacherous terrain, foul weather, taking a fall, getting lost, all of them can strip us of the illusion that we're in charge and make room for a truer self to emerge—“lost enough to find yourself,” as Robert Frost put it.

Gratitude for hardship is, of course, less of a stretch in hindsight, once I’ve safely negotiated rocky terrain and can look back and see how critical it was to my unfolding. But though welcoming Chaos, and sitting still with confusion and uncertainty, can ultimately be liberating, if I can say thank you while lost, then I'm already home.