The Importance of Getting Lost

This is a guest post by Michael Engelhard. Any opinions expressed within the post are solely the author’s.

“I can drop you anywhere with a map, and you’ll find your way home,” a former outfitter for whom I guided Alaska trips told me. I do — and, I might modestly add, always on time for the air taxi pickup. That same outfitter had a tendency to rush into the charter company’s waiting room, requisition your sat phone, hand you a different set of maps, and say, “You’re going to the Hulahula instead of the Aichilik River.” Still, hers ranks among the highest of compliments, like praising a brain surgeon for his sutures and steady hands.

Our obsession with gizmos, with maximizing our time and effort and destinations, has led to a proliferation of backcountry positioning devices that far exceed the scope of topographic maps. These devices do not always increase the safety margin for outdoor recreators. Sales of personal locator beacons and similar devices have jumped 10 percent annually since 2016, and the number of individuals rescued in recent Alaska summers by 20 percent.

A false trust in technology and greater risk-taking — more ambitious itineraries, fewer safeguards or backup plans — explain this trend. Your inReach or satellite phone seems to promise that rescue is only a chopper ride away, rain or shine. However, even with preset GPS waypoints, you can meander for hours or days in convoluted terrain with few distinguishing landmarks, despite the arrow pointing to your destination — as the crow flies is seldom as the walker walks in the canyon country or mountains. And fog, nightfall, and high winds may preclude evac flights.

I say give chance a chance sometime, though. Like when you lose yourself in a book, you might find unexpected things when you lose yourself in the wilderness: ruins or rock art; a seep fringed with maidenhair ferns; a cowboy camp with a saddle or pannier-box kitchen. You might return changed from your earthly wandering, as from a good story. Without mental crutches, you’ll tune in to the landscape differently, traveling with its grain, after much practice almost intuitively.

We should cherish process over result and, like my explorer pen pal Lawrence Millman, avoid destinations at all costs. “Once you’re there,” he muses in Lost in the Arctic, “you’ll never be permitted that long bated breath of anticipation again.” Engage in non-attachment to progress now and then, I suggest. Or stick to rivers if you’re really worried. You cannot be lost when your home spins on its stable axis.

For my traverse of arctic Alaska, I had skimped on buying one map quadrangle that my route traversed only in one bottom corner. I believed I could wing it, trusting my sense of direction and the landscape’s flow to guide my way. But there I stood, at a junction with a broad glacial valley, uncertain which way to turn, bedraggled, up Snowmelt Creek without a paddle; Hänsel trying to trace breadcrumbs with the help of a malfunctioning satellite phone.

To make a long, embarrassing story short, I was able to dial my girlfriend, who, with the help of online maps and my description of the surrounding features I could see, pointed me in the right direction. I encountered a rare snowy owl while pacing listlessly, though I was not in a mind frame to enjoy the rare sighting.

Earlier, one spring day in Nome, I had watched a ptarmigan in the neighbor’s yard caught in a similar mental loop. A freestanding 30-foot fence section barred her path, and the fool hen, frantic in her search for a gap, dashed back and forth, back and forth, but never as far as either end. In the endless moments at that Brooks Range junction, I felt what that bird must have felt.

Bumping through the labyrinth that is the Navajo reservation dirt road system on a different journey, trying to find a trailhead, I stepped from the truck and walked to a rise in search of a landmark to get my bearings. The rise turned out to be the Grand Canyon’s lip, the abrupt, unforeseen view equal to any one of its magnificent official lookouts.

“Practice is finding yourself where you already are,” the 13th-century Zen master Dōgen wrote. He meant it as advice for reaching equanimity in meditation by casting off striving. As a navigation tip, it makes your head spin.

Another time, I ascended a centuries-old indigenous trail to the pinyon-juniper-clad Paria Plateau near Lees Ferry, the beginning of the Grand Canyon. Released condors cast their shadows on me climbing in that sandstone cleft. They slipped by so close overhead that I could hear feathers soughing. At the top, I dropped my pack on that tableland for a leisurely afternoon of exploring.

The uniform forest kept throwing me curveballs. Whenever I thought I was back where I’d started: no pack. I tried retracing my steps but could not escape the maze of my bootprints in the red dirt. Dusk quickly intensified. Wind moaned from the abyss, pushing cold air. I bedded down under a grandfather pine, my blanket the prickly green boughs. Ten miles from Page and Lake Powell’s houseboat scene, and I couldn’t see a single light. Soon, clouds blotted out the stars. Raindrops penetrated the canopy, hitting my holey duvet, pitting the sand. I sought better shelter.

Then, spidery electricity split the sky, the atmosphere’s white-hot temper raking the plateau. Curled into a niche in an undercut boulder too shallow to screen out the rain, I tried to reassure myself. Each year, fewer than 100 Americans die from lightning strikes.

Shivering, dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt, I feared that come morning, the plateau would be socked in, that even with daylight I still wouldn’t find my pack.

I set out as soon as first light painted the tattered clouds. Methodically skirting the rim, I finally spotted my pack’s crimson bulge. I vowed to never, ever again roam without essentials in a daypack at least — a space blanket, some trail mix, re starter … and a first-aid burn kit. In retrospect, the ordeal became a great story and teaching tool. Life tasted richer that morning after.

“You’re not lost when you can backtrack to the last place in which you still knew where you were,” we used to tell Outward Bound students. “You are momentarily misplaced.” If nothing else, scrabbling like guinea pigs in a labyrinth will make you pay more attention the next time around.

About the Author

Trained as an anthropologist and having worked 25 years as a wilderness guide and outdoor instructor, Michael Engelhard is the author of the memoir Arctic Traverse, and the canyon essay collection No Walk in the Park. He crossed the length of Alaska’s trail-less Brooks Range and cut short a Grand Canyon trek after 40 days because of differences with a hiking partner. Engelhard currently lives on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska in a cabin among moose, grouse, lynxes, and porcupines.

All images, including featured image, courtesy of Melissa Guy.

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Comments 1

  • Rick "Quiet Man" : Jul 1st

    Never, ever, leave your pack. Just my opinion.


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