Sabbatical Post #7: On getting lost

In my regular daily life, I so rarely get lost. I have my iPhone always with me, speaking directions to me as I drive or walk somewhere, and the directions are usually precisely accurate, down to which lane I should be in when I take a freeway exit.

When I ride my bike, I have my bike computer on, and I may have downloaded routes with one of several apps on my phone that have ready-made routes for me. I may occasionally miss a turn, but I get back on track in a few minutes.

Hiking (or “walking” as it is known in Scotland and England) is often different from hiking in the US, where most of us walk on trails maintained by the US Forest Service, trails that are marked with names on signs and reminders to stay on the trail. While there are marked trails in the UK, especially for famous walks such as the Coast Trail, one often needs to consult a walking guidebook with instructions such as, “Go around the farmhouse, cross the wheat field, and bear left at the five-bar gate.”

When I hiked in England before, my friend accompanied me and interpreted the guidebook instructions for me. If I had read that instruction above, I would have asked, “Do I go through the gate and then turn left, or do I turn left before the gate? Also, there are two farmhouses in view, so which farmhouse do I go around?”

But when my friend got blisters, I was left to my own devices on a much anticipated hike through part of the New Forest in Hampshire. She picked out a pretty easy walk of 8 miles that would include both dense forest and the heath, as well as guaranteed views of ponies, donkeys, and deer. You’ll be fine, she said. Text me if you get lost.

I admit I was a little intimidated by the guidebook. I had also brought my trusty iPhone with me, with my AllTrails app and two mapping apps. To my surprise, I made it through the first half of the walk on a rainy morning, doing my best to interpret the directions. Unfortunately, these books do not say, “You will find a footbridge in a mile.” They will simply say “You will find a footbridge,” and you have to keep hoping you’re walking in the right direction until at last you see a footbridge. I learned to wait for the instruction to become clear.

I even gave some assistance to four English teenagers doing the “Duke of Edinburgh” three-day backpacking challenge in which teenagers practice finding their way through the outdoors and being self-reliant. They asked me where we were, and I showed them on their big map. “Follow the fence on your left and keep the river to your right,” I told them. I was getting the hang of this.

I stopped at the pub at the midpoint of the walk, thrilled that I had found it, and looked at the directions for the way back, where I assumed I would see those wild ponies and donkeys. The instructions for the way back seemed even clearer. There were the cottages. There was the gate just past the cattle grid. There was the wide gravel path. It was all so clear.

Until it wasn’t. I was told to look for a T-junction in the gravel path and to take the gravel path to the left. I got to a T-junction, but there really wasn’t a gravel path to the left. It had a sprinkling of gravel and then a lot of mud. I thought I still needed to go forward. So I did for about a half mile, but then the next direction didn’t make sense. So I doubled back to the apparent junction and followed that path for about a half mile, but then the next direction didn’t make sense.

I was lost. I knew vaguely where I was, and I knew which direction to walk to get to the car park where my friend would pick me up. By this time, I had added at least a mile to my walk. So I pulled out my hiking app and decided to return to the obvious gravel path because it was going in the right direction and would take me past a large deer park.

I encountered a few cyclists on the large gravel path, but no deer, not even in the large deer park. Not even one. And I certainly didn’t see any donkeys or ponies, though my friend and her husband had told me repeatedly, “They walk right up to you! They sniff your hand! They’re all over the place!”

Finally, after realizing I was not going to find the path I had intended to take, I simply enjoyed the path I was on. I decided to stop thinking that I was lost or had failed to navigate properly. I was in a beautiful forest, the ground was soft, my feet were happy, the rain had stopped, and Apple Maps was going to get me to that car park.

Eventually, I returned to the trail I had walked in the morning, but now I was walking in the opposite direction. I recognized the landmarks and made turns confidently, figuring there were no more surprises.

And then suddenly, there they were: a large herd of deer grazing in a vast expanse on my left. Most were on the other side of a fence, but four very young ones were on my side of the fence, just ahead of me. My boots were crunching on the gravel beneath me, and I didn’t want to startle them, so I stopped.

But one deer did hear or smell me, and he turned to the rest of them, probably saying, “There’s a lost American. Let’s beat it.” Suddenly, a whole herd of deer turned and stared at me. Then the four young ones were startled and started running. One of them leapt over the fence back into the herd, but the others couldn’t figure out how to get over the fence. They all ran away from me. Unfortunately, they were running in the same direction I was going, and I couldn’t stand there all day, so I kept walking, startling them every few seconds despite my attempts to move away from them.

They finally peeled off into a distant patch of forest, and I found my way back to the car park. I realized that what we often call “getting lost” is better framed as “finding another way.” I suspect it ended up being the more excellent way, the one that took me past a herd of deer, the one that encouraged me to relax and trust that God is with me and these deer and the lost teenagers on their “Duke of Edinburgh,” and we all are going to find our way back to our herd.

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