On Being Lost

When I was in kindergarten, I went missing. I was supposed to walk to the babysitter’s house after school, but when I got there she wasn’t home. I was a confused and a little scared. So I walked back to the school and told the principal I didn’t know what to do. She was unable to reach my parents at work so she drove me to the apartment complex where we lived and left me with manager.  The manager took me home to his wife and kids and had her look after me. Around 6pm my parents came, rushing into their home with looks of pure terror and anger on their faces. Apparently the woman who watched me was home and I never showed up.  

But in that case I wasn’t really lost.  I knew where I was.  

Photo by Luke Pennystan on Unsplash

To be really lost you have to not know where you are or how to get back where you came from.  The first time I remember really being lost I was 7-years old. My family had gone camping and it was the job of my brothers and I to gather firewood while my parents set up camp. I wandered off into the woods in search of giant branches that I could drag back for my dad to cut into logs. And the next thing I knew I was lost. It was getting late, I didn’t know where I was and I didn’t know how to get back. Everything looked the same in the woods. I wandered around for what seemed like hours, trying to figure out what I would eat and where I would sleep when my parents were done camping and left me in the woods to go wild with the squirrels. I wished my mother had let me join the Girl Scouts. When I did finally find the camp I burst out of the woods and yelled its okay, I’m here! My dad looked up from his task and asked me where the firewood was.  I had been gone for about 20 minutes, I didn’t have any firewood and no one knew I was gone.

The problem with being lost is not where you will sleep or how you will eat.  The problem is that nobody knows you are gone, because being lost is not the same missing.  Missing implies that someone is looking for you.  Lost is a place where you don’t exist, because no one knows you went there. 

I have a life-long habit of being lost.

When I was ten I got lost exploring an abandoned silver mine in Yerington, Nevada.  When I was 12 I got lost in my new school in Milton-Freewater, Oregon and wound up hiding in the bathroom afraid I would get in trouble for roaming the halls after the bell. 

And so on and so on.

When I was 21 I got married and joined the Air Force. I got lost the first time they gave us a day pass. Only this time my husband was with me, apparently getting lost is contagious.  

We roamed the streets of San Antonio, Texas trying to find the shuttle that would get us back to the base.

Then the Air Force sent us to our first assignment, Las Vegas. Our second night there we decided to go see the infamous Las Vegas strip. We didn’t own a car yet, so we hopped on a bus that looked like it was heading towards some lights. When we got close to the lights we hopped off the bus and started walking. Being from Central New York, what we didn’t know was that Las Vegas is very flat. Which means, unlike New York, you can see very, very far. So very far.  We never did find the strip, but we did find the seediest part of Las Vegas possible. 

We saw a man get stabbed and then got harassed by lewd drunks.

Another important thing about being lost is that if nobody knows your gone how will they contact your next-of-kin? Especially if your emergency contact is lost with you. Can two people not exist in the same place at the same time?

I got lost in Panama City and quickly came to appreciate our mental-health programs that offer inpatient services, rather than turning the mentally ill out onto the streets.

I got lost in San Francisco when I decided to walk from the Pier 39 to Haight-Ashbury.

We got lost in Guam when we tried to find a waterfall in the jungle.

We got lost in Los Angeles while driving a rental Buick and holding a street map.

My husband and I have a son and he, like us, loves to explore. So now three of us get lost. We got lost in Washington D.C. and wound up on the opposite side of the Potomac that we started from. We could see our hotel on the opposite shore and had no idea we had crossed a river or how to get back.

We got lost in Pennsylvania, while camping in the Allegheny Mountains. We went for a hike and once again wound up on the opposite side of a river.

Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

Being lost is terrifying and yet carries with it a certain amount of freedom. In your lost state you are anonymous, invisible, you move through crowded public spaces and not exist. Sometimes I know where I am and how to get where I’m going and I’m still lost; surrounded by people who don’t see me. It is the urban condition, to exist in an existential nightmare of nonexistence.

We moved to Buffalo when I was accepted into a PhD program. I came to study archaeology, to take all of those years of wandering about places exploring and give it an officially cool-sounding purpose. I got lost the first day of classes. University of Buffalo’s  north campus was designed to keep students in a constant liminal state.  It’s an architectural labyrinth, that defies reason.

I’m sure it was also designed to prevent grad students from escaping their ever-increasing load of student debt.

I traveled Teotihuacan, Mexico to do research for my dissertation. I got lost on the first day, trying to get back to the lab from the market. As the sun began to descend in the horizon I wandered around narrow streets that all looked the same. Men leaned in doorways carefully scrutinizing me as I passed by them.

A few days later I took off in search of the site I had spent two years researching and reading about. I had studied all of the data that had previously come from the site, I just needed to go see it and record information. I had a map, a GPSr, a mobile phone, a tablet and aerial photographs. I spent the entire day hiking, by myself, through cactus and ranches, down rough dirt roads and across gullies. I found sheep, three-legged dogs, horses, children, pyramids and tourists. 

What I could not find was my site.

Photo by Camilo Pinaud on Unsplash

Defeated and exhausted I staggered through the gates of the ancient city of Teotihuacan and stood in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. I had spent the last four years doing background research on this site. I had chaired a session at a conference about it. I had given presentations about it. I worked with the archaeologists who 50-years prior had mapped the entire city, measurement by measurement. I spent countless hours hunched over in the lab looking at micro-abrasion on skull fragments that came from the same era as the birth of Christ. And yet I couldn’t find the site, wouldn’t find it before I had to get back on the plane and head home. Over the past five years my husband and my son had made numerous sacrifices so that I could stand face to face with the Pyramid of the Sun defeated. 

I was lost – adrift, drawn by the lure of academia and its comfortable cloister, yet certain I was a fraud. That I was pretending to fit in, when I never really did. I was going deeper and deeper into debt – I owe enough money to buy a nice house with – and yet, I had nothing to show for it.

I got in line with the rest of the tourists, I climbed that damned pyramid all the way to the top and said goodbye.

I’ve come to accept my propensity for finding myself uncertain in unknown places. Mostly because I always wind up back home. But also because it’s where the stories come from. Some of the best stories you’ll ever tell; some of the strongest memories you’ll ever tell, will be about what unexpected thing happened to you when you forgot to take that “left turn at Albuquerque”. You’ll be telling them because you survived. You left the comfort of the familiar and ventured into something new, something frightening, something foreign and made it back out again.

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