The Loss of Lost

Posted by Tim Landeck on October 10, 2014

Woods with snowWe were lost, I mean really lost! I was with my 17 year old son, and it was the second day of our 30 day backpack trip to conquer all 230 miles of the John Muir Trail. The first day had been smooth but when we left Yosemite Valley and hit snow, the trail disappeared, and so did our knowledge of exactly where we were. We saw plenty of trees and snow but no footprints or signs of any sort to follow. Should we turn back and find our way to where we first began the day, or follow our plan to find the next campsite?

When was the last time you were terribly lost—lost in such a way that you weren’t sure if you should go left, right, forward or backward? You may not have been in the woods. Perhaps you were standing on a street corner or speeding down a freeway. My guess is that it has been a while since you felt such a strong sense of being lost.

About a year ago I was walking the narrow streets of Venice, Italy, with my wife. We were looking for a particular restaurant for dinner when we came to a dark dead end. My wife turned to me and asked, “Now what?” Using my 21st century instincts, I whipped out my iPhone and launched Google Maps. “Look” I said, “We are here where the blue dot is pulsing and we just need to follow the map to here.” We did as I suggested, and within a few minutes we were seated at a table in a romantic paradise alongside a small canal filled with silent gondolas. What if we hadn’t had that jewel of a device to show us the way?

Later that night, as we were walking back to our hotel, we overheard a couple stressing out about being lost in Venice. “Aren’t you supposed to get lost in Venice and enjoy it?” one said to the other. “I have no idea where we are!” gasped the other. They folded up their paper map and apprehensively walked on. We have no idea how long it took to find their destination, but they did appear to experience the true feeling of lost.

As I watched the couple disappear around the corner, I began to reminisce about that second day on the John Muir Trail when the sun was setting and we still hadn’t found our campsite. The feeling of lost in the backcountry with snow all around and not knowing which way to turn is different than walking aimlessly with a belly full of wine through the streets of Venice, but both are on the “spectrum of lost.”

Personal GPS devices and satellite mapping of the earth have eliminated the ability to get lost. Give a GPS device to a person who would never want to admit to being lost, and lost will never happen again. Everyone wants to be “in the know” and to have the answer. Ask a factual question to a group of Google hipsters and watch as the smartphones come out and the answer is revealed within moments. It is no longer important to know the answer (where you are) but more importantly how to quickly find the answer (your destination). GPS has meant the loss of lost and the Internet has provided the mechanism to find whatever you seek. In education we need to work within this new reality and help students learn ways to access information instead of memorizing it. While there is still a place for memorization, because there is too much information (dead ends in Venice) available today, we have no option but to approach education differently.

That said, there is still an argument to be made that not knowing, or getting lost, is healthy and good for the brain. As Rebecca Solnit says in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, “…to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” Being fully present is a goal that many of us seek daily but have trouble realizing on a regular basis. Maybe we just need to get lost more often.

With strong perseverance and a lot of luck, my son and I did finally reach our next campsite before complete darkness. The rest of the trip was successful with only map and compass. I admit, however, that—against my son’s wishes—I had tried twice to purchase a personal GPS gadget to guide us through the snow to our Mount Whitney destination, but as of two years ago, neither shops in Yosemite Valley nor Bishop had any for sale. Thank goodness, for we would have lost the opportunity to be lost!