Have you ever been lost outside? It’s quite an experience – disorienting, disconcerting, scary, anxiety-inducing, exhilarating, dangerous, liberating…depending on what transpires, there are myriad descriptors to depict what losing your bearings in the wilderness can be like. I haven’t been lost outside in quite awhile, but a few years back on a day hike in the Maroon Bells Wilderness, my hiking companions and I lost the trail. We’d set out early in the morning with a topo map of the area, along with day packs full of snacks, water, and rain gear. We were on the Marble side of the wilderness area, not the more populated Aspen side, and the route we picked that day was not well used (or maintained) that summer, especially as we gained altitude and reached the tree line. Just before midday, a storm started moving in, and we picked our way over an ominously darkening snow and ice covered pass. As we started to make a speedy descent back toward the promise of tree cover, we realized our trail had faded to nothing and there were no rock cairns in sight — in our haste, we had veered off course. We had a general idea of where we were, but the official, marked way to move down the mountain was uncertain. We were disoriented, and we had to make choices based on our reality at the time. [Of course, in some cases when you are lost, staying put is the best choice. It’s worth mentioning that this is not a "what to do if you get lost in the wilderness type of post – check out this resource from the US Forest Service if that’s what you are looking for.]
We eventually found the trail again, but in the time leading up to stepping back onto a well-worn trail, I suppose we were officially lost. We didn’t know exactly where to go next, but in those moments of unknowing, I can remember noticing more details. I noticed how the wind shifted in the trees, how the mountain seemed to breathe in and out as the storm rumbled overhead, how the delicate green water plants in the stream we followed in lieu of the trail shimmered under the weight of tiny water droplets. I felt the life of the mountain flowing through me as the sense of being fully present was intensified with the uncertainty of our path.
Mary Oliver writes, in her most recent book “Upstream”:
Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor.
She’s talking about a time when she was a child, and she started walking upstream, away from her parents. They thought she was lost, and maybe she truly was for a time. But in that experience, what stuck to her soul was simply a sense of the happiness that comes from feeling cool water push against bare skin, a shade of pale green, a heart opening. A sense of “going toward the source.”
I think that’s what sticks to me, too — or at least, that’s what I want to stick when I find myself steeped in uncertainty, whether I’m physically lost on the side of a mountain or simply unsure of the next choice to make in life. There is perhaps value in being lost in the sense that when lost, you are disoriented enough to question where you were originally headed. I don’t know about you, but where I’m originally headed is occasionally not where I want to end up. Sometimes I push forward blindly, just so I can say I’m headed somewhere and that I’m not actually lost. That I know where I’m going after all. I forget to let myself bask in the uncertainty that comes from the unknowing, the disconcerting feeling of not having a map, and the exhilaration of letting the stream lead the way.
I don’t always want to be lost, and I certainly don’t want to be lost again on the side of a mountain in a storm anytime soon. But I do want to use those times when I am unsure of where to go next as a channel into going toward the source. I want to let being lost, when it happens, come over me like a vapor, and I want to breathe it in and let it nourish me like a tonic.