By Christopher Cudworth
If you’re a runner or a cyclist, or even a swimmer who gets out into open water, you have likely experienced the awful feeling of getting lost.
Out in the woods
It doesn’t happen that often for most of us. We run and ride familiar routes where getting lost is not a possibility. But when you’re in a strange new place, or you wander off your traditional routes on a backroad it isn’t that hard to wind up lost. And alone. And wondering how the hell to get back home.
On vacation in northern Wisconsin one summer I took off for a morning run in a National Forest near Eagle River. The morning was cool and the sky was grey and flat. There were logging and ATV trails that made for great running as long as you didn’t slow down. Then the deerflies would get you. Huge clouds of deerflies flipping around your noggin. They could drive you crazy.
It was fun running on the upsy-downsy ATV trails through woods thick with tamarack and birch trees. Maple hardwords were the climax forest in the area, along with leftover stands of white pines. Breeding warblers sang in the trees and pine squirrels shot across the trail. Fawns and their mothers were everywhere, and at twilight treefrogs sang from their perches. You can run forever it seems, when nature welcomes you.
Just a few miles more
But it can also be deceiving out there. So when I took a new trail and set off to add a couple miles to the 4 mile loop I usually ran, it should have occurred to me to mark the trail back somehow.
Deeper into the woods I ran. The canopy closed over the trail and the trail cut through a hemlock woods that was silent and dark. Then the trail dropped into an area that was heavily logged. The shards of fallen trees were everywhere, and the deerflies were thick. To get away from them took a combination of serious swatting, running and a change of habitat.
Having killed a few deerflies with my hand, I stopped running for a moment and realized suddenly that I had no idea where I was. The sky was no help at all. You could not tell north from south because the sun was absent behind the flat grey skies. There were no clues other than moss on the north side of trees to tell you want direction was what. I tried to call up all my supposed knowledge of nature from years of birding, but that wasn’t much help. I’m not one of those survival type nature lovers. Couldn’t tell you what bark to use for sunscreen or anything like that. All I know is not to wipe your ass with poison ivy. Usually that’s good enough knowledge for a run in the woods.
Glancing at my watch, I noted that I’d already run about 4 miles given the usual 8:00 pace on an easy run. I tried circling back the way I came and found a confounding array of trail options. The main trail was constructed like a feather with a bunch of barb trails angling off into the woods.
Bad omens and bearing up
A band of ravens flew through the woods, low and smooth as they went. The last bird uttered that wild croak they use when hunting. I felt very alone.
There are bears in the Wisconsin woods. Wolves even, in places. Here was I, a skinny runner with nothing but my flimsy running shorts, a tee-shirt and a bandanna. Come and get me wildlife. I’m not much to eat but I might taste sweet.
Out west the mountain lions have on occasion learned to pounce on runners, which act a lot like stupid prey. We all run with eyes forward, in that dull human way, without looking around that much. It’s not that hard for a mountain lion to swing around behind, jump off a rock and put a couple incisors through the skull. Then have lunch.
But none of those thoughts really occurred because I’ve been running so long and love the woods so much that I know there’s always a way out. If nothing else, you run in one direction until you hit a road. Even many of our national forests are so compromised by civilization that you’ll hit a road sooner or later if you run slow and keep moving.
Difference between riding and running it out
I’ve gotten lost on the mountain bike in those same woods. But on a bike you have a friend of sorts along with you. It’s easier to keep pedaling than to keep moving. Usually. Plus you’re likely carrying water.
As a runner, you simply must perambulate more carefully. Being thoroughly lost in those Wisconsin woods on foot, I decided to use a system of right turns at a specific angle if possible, trying to use the approximate tangent of my earlier running path (as best I could recall) to bring me back to some familiar spot on the trail. But it took a while. I was now a full hour into the run. That particular summer my longest runs were 45:00.
It honestly took another 40:00 to find a trail that I knew would lead out of the woods. Stopping for a moment, I bent over and said a little prayer of thanks as is appropriate in that situation. But I didn’t thank God for saving me. I thanked God for not letting me die out there. There’s a difference. Because it did require my own action. I wasn’t carried out on the wings of ravens or dragged to safety by a band of friendly wolves. Instead I believed in my own volition. Even God will tell you that it takes two. Heck, even God needs a Trinity by most reports.
Later I was able to piece together where I’d run, and how I’d gotten lost. It came down to a trail where ferns hung over the entrance. On the way through they did not look like much. But coming back they obscured the trail entirely. That’s how I missed it. The flat grey sky did not help at all. That should have been a possible factor in whether I tried those extra miles. Be sensitive to the conditions.
Lost and found
My wife had been worried, but she also knew that I always found my way out of the woods somehow, both literally and figuratively. But that didn’t stop her and quite a few others at the cabin resort from asking whether I wanted help getting back when I got up to go to our cottage for a beer.
New ways not to get lost
Compared to running, getting lost on the bike really is a different experience. And nowadays you can usually glance at your iPhone and get back on track in a heartbeat. That’s true while running too. Perhaps GPS has taken away the thrill of getting lost?
Thinking about getting lost
There’s an allegory there because it’s just as easy to get lost in other ways in life as well. That feeling of being socially or economically or relationally adrift can make you feel as lost as if you were running through the woods. You look for familiar markers. Go back to church. Or school. Or find old friends or new to help you get re-oriented.
Then one day, if you’re lucky or smart of persistent, the woods of malaise open up and everything suddenly gets clear. You no longer feel lost, and you’re not.
Getting out of the woods
If you’re ever lost–whether out on the road or “just” in your head, it pays to take a moment and try to gain a sense of where you’ve been, where you’re really going and how you’re going to get there.
It’s best if the sun’s out in some fashion, of course. At least you have a prayer when there’s light. But even under dark clouds or dark of night there are ways to find your way out of the woods, so to speak.
The first action of course is to “take stock.” How is your general energy? Your hydration? Your will to return to sanity and salvation.
- Be patient. It’s important to take stock whether you’re out on an extended run or ride or embedded in a job search. It’s always important to measure your energy level. Sometimes it is far better to “slow down and walk” while you gather your wits rather than burn up vital stores of mental or physical energy trying to prove to yourself that you can keep going.
- Calm yourself. The British World War II saying “Keep Calm and Carry On” was designed to encourage courage in the face of falling bombs and firestorms. But it shows that you can survive a lot more than you think, including being lost.
- Pace yourself. It doesn’t help to hurry a job search any more than it helps to run faster when you’re lost in the woods. When you’re trying to find your way home or get employed you’re not trying to set any records.
- Believe. If you open up your mind to the world around you, the answers often come walking right up to your feet. So rather than shutting down your entire belief system when things get tough of you get lost, remember that you somehow got to where you are right now. It only stands to logic that you can get back if you believe it possible.
A little help
Of course there’s more than one way to be lost, or be found.
I think about another day up at the northwoods cabin when I’d already run a long way that morning and decided to swim out to a floating dock. About halfway out to the dock my arms grew tired and my legs were too. A shock of fright ran through me and I wondered if the strength to continue swimming was really still there. Drowning on vacation? What a horrid way to go.
At that very moment I heard a snuffle in the water beside me. A dog had followed me out from shore. His nose was dipping below the surface with every paw stroke. It was clear that he also was tired. Possibly too tired to make it to the floating dock. His eyes were wide in panic.
Seeing that dog reminded me that there is always more energy if you really need it. So I reached under the dog and put an arm under the keel of his chest. He was buoyant but you could feel the weight of his body, the fur wet now, and heavy. Together we paddled our way to the dock. He knew his way around to the ladder so I followed him there and helped him clamber up to the astroturf platform. His wet tail dripped a stream of water down on my head.
Safe at last
Climbing up alongside the dog I flopped down on the deck beside him, arms tired but with a body full of adrenaline from helping the dog. I lay in the hot sun and the dog gave one of those wet shakes that sends water everywhere. Then he stuck his cold wet nose under my nose and let loose a wet snort. He laid his wet body down next to mine and for a few minutes we hung out there together in the middle of a lake with the sun beating down on our bodies.
Once we’d recovered, the dog and I swam back to the shore. Neither of us seemed tired or worried. Something about our shared experience seemed to imbue strength. Once on shore, I gave him a pat and he ran off to do whatever dogs do on a hot afternoon in July. Sleep, mostly.
But the dog also reminded me that sometimes the surest way to get over your own fears, and focus on needs other than your own, is to realize there are others who might need help even more than you. Sometimes when we seem most lost, all it takes is another soul to remind us that we can be found again. Rescued. Saved. Get out of the woods or the water on our own two–or four–feet.
Helping others feel less lost
Want to help someone feel less lost? Sometimes that help is nothing more than a pat on a back during an interval workout or someone pulling you back into the group during a long, windy ride.
At those moments a song by Coldplay comes to mind. “Just because I’m losing…doesn’t mean I’m lost…”
It’s a good refrain to keep in mind whenever you, or someone you know, feels lost. Like the Prodigal Son or the Prodigal Daughter, it feels great to be found. Kinda like you feel alive again.