In Defense of Being Lost
I had been hiking for over an hour up a mountain path in Bacharach, Germany. It was raining and I was trying to reach a castle that has been converted into a hostel. The pack on my back weighed 32 lbs. I was 20 years old. I was traveling alone.
And I am lost.
I again read the instructions for navigating the paths, but I had no idea which turn I had missed or how far off track I was. The path cut horizontally across the mountain; neither direction looked more promising than the other, and both were indifferent to me.
I stood there, breathing hard, drenched with rain and sweat, and felt panic welling up. It seemed so improbable to get this lost walking from a train station to a hostel. I had less than two more hours before darkness settled, and I had no idea what to do.
This was not a rare occasion.
I had been traveling for three weeks, and I got lost in nearly every city I visited.
I got lost within the walled city of Avignon, France for nearly two hours looking for my hostel, only to find it, be denied a room, and break down crying.
I got lost walking through the park on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria that had a beautiful overlook of the city, but apparently no way back down to it – while night fell dense and foreboding around me.
I choose to always be lost in Venice, as the city demands.
As much as I traveled, getting lost never stopped being uncomfortable: the panic would always rise up, the grip of uncertainty around my lungs.
Each time I faced the unknown, I cultivated the knowledge that underneath the fear lays the solid and foundation truth:
I am capable of finding my way.
That exhausted on a mountain in Bacharach, I will leave my pack against some trees so I can sprint down each the path until I can catch my bearing and begin again.
That in that park in Salzburg, I will jump the overlook’s fence and worked my own way down the cliff, climbing through the brush and bushes towards the light of a restaurant at the bottom. That I am the kind of woman who will surprise patrons at outside tables when I emerge breathing hard and laughing, twigs clinging to my shirt and hair.
That I will join hands with a crowd dancing in a circle around an unknown statue in an unmapped square of Venice and a TV crew will approach me, asking, “perché sei qui per protestare contro il sistema scolastico italiano?”
So I embraced perpetual aching back, the blistered feet, the frustration, and the fear, so that I could continually be in touch with that knowledge that came to define me: I am a woman who can navigate through the world.
I traveled through seventeen cities in five countries on an award from the Vira I. Heinz Travel Grant for Global Women’s Leadership. I was stranded in France during rail strikes; I was bed ridden with a stomach bug in Italy; I was harassed by my innkeeper in Switzerland, and I emerged a woman capable of fending for myself and navigating the unknown.
That was fifteen years ago.
Now: Google maps tracks my every step. Even if I do find myself in the rare situation of being lost, all of its depth has disappeared: being instantly found and led back home is always right at hand.
It’s not that my phone helps me navigate these kinds of challenges differently; it’s simply that opportunity of being lost has been eradicated. And with it, the chance to know myself as I did when I was 20: not fearless, but refusing to be cowed by my fear and willing to trek off knowing there would be mistakes, that I would end up some place unexpected, that I would have to ask for help or rely on my own determination to see myself through.
My phone is a charm against such errors: it gets me right where I was trying to go. And in that direct line to the destination, I found I’ve lost the purpose of the journey.
An interactive map of the wonderful mistakes I made through Eruope.