“Not all those who wander are lost..." JRR Tolkien
Ah, but sometimes they are.
I seem to spend a great deal of my time getting lost. I am a truly appalling map reader, I’m not entirely sure why. Though for one, I don’t have a very attuned internal compass, so I’m not very good at being aware of my body in space, and two, I am a details-focussed person, so I’m too busy being entranced by the small things, fungi, mosses, flowers and birds, to stop and pay attention to the big things, like where the sun is or the wider landscape and any distant route markers.
The first time I got properly lost was on a very ill prepared walk with a friend when I was sixteen. We had just finished our O level (me) and A level (her) exams and while waiting for results we decided to do a three day hike in Wales. On our first day out walking through forestry commission lands at the foot of Cader Idris, we got horribly lost, wet, cold and annoyed with each other. After a 16 mile walk that should have been 8 miles, we fell into a warm, welcoming youth hostel, managed to cadge a pint of Guinness each down the pub and went to bed that night feeling adventurous, victorious and friendly with each other again.
I think that walk affected me quite a lot, it began my love for long walks and perhaps instilled in me a secret pleasure in getting lost, simply for the joy of finding warmth and safety at the end of the day.
I often get intentionally lost, especially around my home patch and in places where I have walked regularly, where I like to walk inquisitively, veering off down unwalked roads and paths just for sheer curiosity. Then I’m happy being lost because I know that I’ll probably be able to find my way to familiar places eventually and in the meantime will discover somewhere new, unwalked. I am inspired in this by Iohan Gueorguiev, aka The Bike Wanderer, who in his quest to cycle the length of North and South America, very often takes the unknown path or veers off from his route because his curiosity to see the world is stronger than his need to get to the end of his journey. Sometimes his curiosity takes him into challenging situations which he always seems to overcome with doggedness and a cheerful optimism.
Mental attitude and physical strength has an enormous influence on one’s experience of getting lost. Iohan is over six foot tall and seems to have an almost superhuman ability to overcome physical exhaustion, wading through snow, rivers and cycling for days across mountains and deserts seemingly unflagging. The worst time to get lost is when you are physically tired, or if your mental attitude is not positive for whatever reason. Trying to get somewhere at a given time, for instance when you need to catch the last bus home, seems to be a recipe for unexpected lostness. And understandably, physical tiredness can cause you to get lost, simply because your brain is not paying attention, especially if you decide to take a shortcut, because so often, “shortcuts make long delays,” as Pippin says in Lord of the Rings.
Most of the time, I must admit, my getting lost is not intentional. It feels rather ridiculous to be someone who loves walking adventures and yet is an incompetent map reader and a regular lost soul. It’s frustrating when I am tired and embarrassing when I’m walking in company; getting myself and another person lost is the worst. I can hide how much I get lost when I am walking alone, until I write about it in a blog post for all to see that is.
Shame and embarrassment are awful feelings aren’t they? It’s odd, because the vulnerabilities that other people show can really endear them to us, but when it comes to our own vulnerability we feel shame and want to hide.
I used to feel a lot of shame about the number of times I have gotten lost on my life journey. Probably for exactly the same reasons that I get lost on my walking journeys; not seeing the big picture, veering off down interesting looking avenues and enjoying the journey alone rather than walking it with companions. It occurred to me that getting lost walking and getting lost in life are both the same thing, and really neither should be embarrassing or shameful. Getting lost is an opportunity to see new things, to go down roads you would otherwise never travel. I got very lost a couple of years ago and found myself going down very different, unexpected roads. But it was a great journey, ended up being a bit circular and was challenging, but I picked up new companions and learnt some things about myself along the way, and at the end of it I could see much more clearly which roads suited me and which were best left alone. It was horrible to be lost on that journey for a while, but I think I have found a good path now and I can look back on the places where I got lost with gratitude for what that taught me.
So I am going to finish this by wishing you a special New Year blessing: