The Endangered Art of Getting Lost and Why it May be Good for Us

I stood up to admire my haul, and for the first time, paused to look around. I had been so hyper-focused on the forest floor, which was blooming with glorious eruptions of chanterelles, that I hadn’t stopped to look up in … 30 minutes? An hour? Two? Hmm. I wonder where everyone is. Probably over the next hill or dale, scavenging their own loot. I called out. Silence. I tried again, a little louder this time. Still no response.

I came up to this high mountain glade with three friends and a dog named Spicy to forage for mushrooms. Shortly after we left the trail and plunged into the woods, I began finding clusters of apricot-colored chanterelles — my favorite of the edible fungus kingdom. I was soon in a bonanza-fueled state of rapture. Each time I stood up from harvesting and took a few steps, another orange eruption. So. Many. Mushrooms.

The less we practice navigation in the old-fashioned sense — by getting out a map, paying attention to the sun’s location in the sky or using powers of recall — the less our brains know how to do it.

I forgot about my friends, my problems, and barely noticed the mosquitos that were eating me alive. I was absolutely in awe, like that guy in the viral YouTube video who saw a double rainbow. I gleefully followed the trail of gold deeper into the forest, humming “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” my mesh bag growing heavier by the minute.

When I finally came to my senses though, I had zero idea where my friends are. I wasn’t even sure where I was. The woods were dense, and I didn’t pay attention to direction during my amblings. I started yelling louder. Still nothing. I laced my fingers in my mouth and gave my loudest whistle, which is near-siren level in decibel. I was sure the dog would hear it and come running. I waited. It didn’t.

A current of panic began to run through me. The forest was quiet, rustling only with the faint breeze. I believed I knew the general direction of the trail, and I started to head that way. But the landscape didn’t look familiar, and I didn’t come across any evidence of my cuttings. Soon I arrived at the edge of a marsh; this was definitely unfamiliar. The panic grew. I yelled and whistled some more, and again was answered with silence. I had my phone, but there was no service. Where the hell is this trail?

Worst-case scenarios began to unspool across my brain, and I suddenly felt foolish. I should have paid attention, stayed in hearing range of my friends. No matter how delectable, a bag of mushrooms is not worth a night spent alone in the woods. What kind of mess have I gotten myself into?

Getting lost is a foible that humans have been stumbling into for long as they’ve been rambling by foot. It’s disorienting and not terribly fun — with consequences that range from inconvenient at best to fatal at worst.

But I would argue that occasionally losing one’s way is actually not that bad for us. After all, nothing will give you sharp presence of mind quite like not knowing where you are. Plus it forces us to engage in dying arts like navigation, orientation, and figuring out which direction is which. It makes us figure our way out of tricky situations, tap our self-reliance, and fend for ourselves. In the age of GPS, Alexa, and artificial intelligence, those skills are in danger of vanishing.

When shadows lengthen, trails can disappear, everything looks, unfamiliar. But maybe that’s good. Photo: Brendon Thompson.

Research backs this up. Relying on computers to tell us where we are, researchers say, has a use-it-or-lose-it effect on the brain. The less we practice navigation in the old-fashioned sense — by getting out a map, paying attention to the sun’s location in the sky or using powers of recall — the less our brains know how to do it.

Experts assert that getting lost is an important tool for human growth for other reasons, too. It forces people to utilize high reasoning, intuition, and memory. It often entails asking strangers for directions — which creates social connections. And, getting lost pulls us out of the well-trodden routines of life, putting us squarely in the moment as our brains work to find solutions.

I’m not advocating for plunging into an unknown landscape unprepared as some kind of game. The costs and resources related to search and rescue operations are nothing to take lightly, and I’ve covered enough of them as a mountain town reporter in Colorado to know that the consequences of getting lost in the wilderness can be tragic. But for outdoor travelers, being prepared and testing skills of navigation rather than always depending on computers can be beneficial.

That day in the woods, I certainly wasn’t concerned with high reasoning or presence. I was too focused on how in the world I would find my way back home.

At the marsh, I doubled back, and before long reached the edge of a small stream. A good sign — I knew that a waterway ran parallel to the trail about a mile from the trailhead; this could be the same one.

I struck out perpendicular to the stream in the direction I thought the trail was, hiking up and over hills and through shrouded pockets of forest. Eventually, the trail appeared, a welcome ribbon of brown dirt. I exhaled. Relief. Soon, I found my friends. They had hiked way ahead, sticking to the trail, more occupied with chatting than hunting for mushrooms. They were oblivious to the mental tailspin I had been through. We returned home, where I cleaned mushrooms for days, feasted like a queen and promised myself to pay more attention.

These days, I try to stick to that goal. But from time to time, I’ll wander off-trail with my husband, who likes to test his sense of place with a good bushwhack (something he learned while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail). And instead of panicking, I try to think of it like those crosswords we tackle: a healthy exercise for our brains.

Top photo: Sandis Helvigs



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