Here’s what I hope to do on my upcoming trip out West:
Get lost. And not just once, but over and over again.
Why? Because being lost is highly underrated.
Some years back, in the pre-GPS era, I got (unintentionally) lost during a drive through the Idaho panhandle. Holding unwarranted faith in my inner gyroscope, I found myself not where I thought I should be, but instead rolling to a halt amid ponderosa pines in a six-structure hamlet going by the name of Good Grief. One of the structures housed the so-called pizza shop, which appeared to be open for business but absent its proprietor. The adjacent structure housed, as I learned, the mayor of Good Grief, who proved to also be the proprietor of the unmanned pizza shop. A handwritten note on the door of the shop instructed those with a yearning for a slice to knock next door, thereby waking up the mayor from his afternoon snooze and transforming him — at least for a few minutes — into a pizza chef. I don’t have the space here to expound on the entertaining nature of Hizzoner. I’m going to ask that you trust me. Lousy pizza, but a spectacularly rich, unplanned visit.
Get lost! We usually hear that as a curt directive. What I’m proposing is that in our age of global positioning technologies we might want to recontextualize these words as an invitation to engage in the purposefully unpredictable pleasures of surprise.
I live in New York City, a world-class destination for getting lost. In my time I have wandered off to Coney Island when I’d thought I was Queens-bound. I’ve taken the wrong left and the erroneous right fork and stumbled onto the Louis Armstrong House Museum. I’ve literally been Lost in Yonkers. I once entreated a fellow in the Bronx to turn me around and set me straight, explaining to him that I was lost, only to have him reply: “No such thing, my friend. You are temporarily where you didn’t expect yourself to be. That’s all.”
He was right.
What we call being lost could as easily be reframed as the unexpected place of surprises. On a hike in Vermont last summer, I aimed for a mountain lake but crossed my wires and instead found a waterfall. Loved it. More recently, I took the “wrong” exit off the interstate and discovered the world’s only museum devoted to the history of gloves. A glove museum? Knock me down with a mitten.
But if getting lost is an art, these days it’s an increasingly difficult one to enjoy, as more and more we are led by the digital hand from Destination A to Destination B. Safely. Clinically. With little hope of misadventure.
Some recent studies say that our ongoing dependence on GPS devices and apps to steer us this way and that is shrinking our hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for navigating the spatial environment. The hippocampus stores memory of our daily (and nightly) neural activity and patterns, then uses this stored info to improve our capacity to steer ourselves around. It enables us to navigate our world. Apparently relying on our external guidance devices and the like is robbing our hippocampus of crucial opportunities to flex and grow. One of the best ways to put your hippocampus through its paces is to intentionally get lost and then call on it to show its stuff. But with Mommy and Daddy GPS constantly walking us around, that’s hard to do.
I do have some paper maps for my upcoming trip. I’ve got some guide books. There’s a basic outline of Plan A. But my Plan B is to veer off course at a moment’s notice and give my hippocampus a little run for its money.
I plan to get lost.
To temporarily be where I didn’t expect myself to be.
I can’t wait.
Tim Cockey is a writer living — and getting lost — in New York City.