The thrill of stumbling directly into the heart of the unknown
By Tim Cahill
I seem to have spent a lot of time lost: I’ve been lost in the jungles of South America and Africa, lost in the Arctic, lost at sea, lost in the caves of Kentucky, and even lost atop a mountain I can see from my front door. I’m a master of inept bushwhacking, of erroneous orienteering. Give me two roads converging in the woods on a snowy evening, and I’ll take the one most bivouacked.
The first time, it happened in a department store during the Christmas shopping rush. I was perhaps 4 years old, and my mother had dressed me up for my interview with the Santa who presided there. A picture taken at the time shows a skinny child bundled up in a large jacket with mittens on strings dangling from the sleeves. I was sitting there on Santa’s lap wearing a red beret and a look of complete terror. “Ho, ho, ho,” this albino Sasquatch said, and all I could think about was the giant in the story “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
Sometime later during that trip, probably while my mother was paying for some purchase, I wandered off. There were more people than I had ever seen before, and the place was full of shiny stuff that a kid could play with or examine or ignore as the mood struck. I was a cliché. A child lost in a department store during the Christmas crush. But it was like a dream of flight, this small exploratory foray, a heady, soaring sensation combined with the vague impression that everything—the toys, the people, the half-price sofas, the Philco radios, and the blinking lights—somehow belonged to me. When an adult holds a child’s hand, the world belongs to the adult. But for those few minutes, all of it—the wholly shiny new world—was mine.
As my mother tells the story, she spent half an hour “frantic with worry” looking for me. She was riding up an escalator, about to search another floor, when she looked over toward the adjacent escalator and saw a red beret sticking up above the moving rail. She called to me, shouted out my name—“Tim, Tim”—and I glanced over as if to say, in utter surprise, “moi?” I am told that I looked at my mother with the sort of vague, disinterested curiosity one usually reserves for people who make a spectacle of themselves in public. I was captured at the bottom of the escalator and scolded in such a way that I felt absolutely loved. It is a sweet memory, this tearful reunion, but I also recall a sense of some small disappointment: It would have been nice to have been lost just a little while longer.
Not every directional misadventure, however, has been my fault. Sometimes, as Bogart said about the waters in Casablanca, I have been misinformed. South America is a good place for this sort of thing. When asked, a typical South American male is likely to rattle off detailed directions to your desired destination. The fact that he has no idea where it is that you want to go will not deter him in the least.
I have discussed the matter with veteran South American travelers and with members of the South American Explorers Club, and we have come up with three possible explanations for this behavior. It may have something to do with the tradition of macho: A man may feel somehow less of a man if he cannot give directions to a stranger. (Likewise, American males find it difficult to admit they are lost. “Why don’t we just pull into the gas station and ask,” she says. “Nah,” he replies, teeth clenched, “it’s gotta be just around the corner.” This can go on for hours.)
A second explanation may have something to do with the courtly Latin tradition of courtesy. How rude to reply “I don’t know” to a guest in one’s country.
A third explanation: In the mountainous hinterlands, say in the eastern foothills of the Andes, Indians, who generally speak Spanish as a second language, often give directions like “above” or “below.” When the traveler arrives above or below to find that he has been misinformed, he seldom has the energy to climb back to the source of the misinformation for a bit of clarification. Better to simply push ahead and ask again at the next village.
Something like this happened to Gonzalo Pizarro back in 1541. A decade before that, Gonzalo’s half brother, Francisco, had led the Spanish conquest of the Incas. In the 10 years that followed, I am certain the news of the conquest then gradually floated up over the Andes and into the cloud forests at 10,000 feet, where the Chachapoyas and other peoples lived. Gonzalo and his expedition of 200 Spaniards were looking for cities of gold and groves of cinnamon trees. The people must have known that these strangers carried sticks that killed from afar, that they were great ones for rape and robbery, for pillage and murder, not to mention wholesale enslavement of the locals.
“Oh yeah,” the native people told Pizarro, “a city of gold—you bet. It’s about a 10-day march over that range of mountains on the horizon there.” The expedition staggered around for more than a year, certain that the gold and spices were just over the next rise. Some Spaniards deserted the expedition. Many died of disease or fatigue and malnutrition. Eventually the survivors ate their dogs and horses. Only a few of the Spanish managed to stumble back into Quito in August of 1542.
The Indian people east of Quito were left in peace for centuries due to this policy of misdirection. And I think the impulse survives in the folk who live there today. “Who knows what the strangers want? Let’s send them out to the nasty land where no one goes, send them so far away they’ll never come back.”
In Africa, in a remote central equatorial country, the people I met seemed eager to be of help, but I had mistakenly bought and studied a Swahili phrase book under the impression that the language was used in business and social intercourse. And it was, everyplace in the country except under the Virunga volcanoes, where I happened to be. There, people spoke Kinyarwanda, and only a few spoke a smattering of Swahili, which, in any case, I spoke ungrammatically, one painful word at a time, from the dictionary, rather like Tarzan speaks English. “Where … trail … Ruhengeri?” (“Mahali … wapi … utambaazi … Ruhengeri?”)
Sometimes, however, it’s all my fault. Given my sloppy technique with compass and topo map, I generally stroll into camp or back to the trailhead several days overdue. I believe that I can read a map pretty well if I take my time and really concentrate, but I am like those accident-prone people who, according to psychiatrists, want to punish themselves by bouncing off speeding semis or falling down stairs. I want to get lost. I like to get lost. I am creative in my ineptitude.
The survival and woodcraft books I own all caution the traveler to sit and think when disoriented. “DON’T PANIC,” they scream—the sort of admonition that makes a person consider running off into the bush, hands in the air, screaming and gibbering. How come no one ever tells you to relax and enjoy it? My rules for the lost and inept—my kind of people—are simple. When backpacking, never run your food supply too low. Be entirely self-sufficient. Never leave your pack to see if the trail ahead seems to be the right one. You want to be able to sleep comfortably and eat to maintain your strength; you can’t do either if you’ve managed to lose your pack as well as yourself. If all else fails, you can go on half-rations and wander around for a few days until you find your back trail and—humiliation!—go back the way you came.
Finally, consider your predicament a privilege. In a world so shrunken that certain people refer to “the global village,” the term “explorer” has little meaning. But exploration is nothing more than a foray into the unknown, and a 4-year-old child, wandering about alone in the department store, fits the definition as well as the snow-blind man wandering across the Khyber Pass. The explorer is the person who is lost.
When you’ve managed to stumble directly into the heart of the unknown—either through the misdirection of others or, better yet, through your own creative ineptitude—there is no one there to hold your hand or tell you what to do. In those bad lost moments, in the times when we are advised not to panic, we own the unknown, and the world belongs to us. The child within has full reign. Few of us are ever so free.
“How in the hell did you manage to get lost half an hour from camp?” my backpacking companions ask.
“Dumb luck,” I tell them.
Tim Cahill is an author and a founding editor of Outside magazine, for which he is currently an Editor at Large. He lives in Livingston, Montana. This piece originally appeared in his book Jaguars Ripped My Flesh.
Image By Tristan Pineda