The Benefits of Being Directionally Challenged

Spud Hilton: On getting lost, and getting lost in the moment

12.07.09 | 11:05 AM ET

Typically, I’m pretty book-friendly. I’ve opened my home to hundreds of volumes, allowing them to shelf-surf and mooch off my hospitality for years. Recently a book landed on my desk, however, that I have no intention of allowing to darken my door.

The volume is Never Get Lost Again: The Complete Guide to Improving Your Sense of Direction by Linda Grekin (who I’m sure is an otherwise terribly pleasant person). That’s as much as I can tell you about the book because, as I said, I have no intention of cracking the binding.

Here’s why: Some of the best travel happens when you’re lost.

Don’t believe me? Many of history’s great tales of travel were based on or featured the authors being catastrophically and comically lost, baffled by the situation and how they got there. Bill Bryson, Tony Horowitz, Tim Cahill and Eric Newby all wrote about moments of great directional challenge, some that were the highlights of a particular tale.

There’s even a wildly popular TV show about a planeload of folks who are lost—called, oddly enough, “Lost.”

Lost equates with interesting, which in travel is almost always good. Upon arriving home from a trip, do you tell friends first about the trains that ran on time, or about the hours you spent trying to find the glorious monument everyone said you can’t miss—which led to a quirky karaoke bar where no one spoke English?

There are other benefits to being lost: It forces you to approach and attempt to speak with locals; it forces you to admit a shortcoming (don’t be one of those people who blames being lost on everyone else); and, eventually, you have to relax. By not worrying so much about how to find your way, you may realize that you already know how.

It turns out there are different brands of being lost. In the more high-minded travel “literature,” being lost nearly always brings on an epiphany of some sort—“part of the eternal search for transcendent, experiential meaning”—but I try not to learn too much from being lost. I probably wouldn’t get lost as much and where’s the fun in that? The common forms of lost include:

A single trip that combines all these is rare; the best example might be a trip taken by Dorothy Gale of Kansas (bet you didn’t know “The Wizard of Oz” is a travel story). I came very close while searching for a Soviet plane in Grenada.

Driving in Grenada was probably an extreme sport even before Hurricane Ivan flattened most of the island, tore the roofs off 90 percent of the buildings and picked up half the roadways and dropped them on Grand Cayman. Navigating the narrow, shoulderless, twisty highways felt a bit like a game in which the challenges are avoiding head-ons, driving on the left side of a road that doesn’t really have two sides, surviving multi-lane traffic circles with no lines and being polite to drivers who yell in Creole something about your failure to embrace the finer points of Grenadian driving.

Ivan would have removed the road signs (if there had been any to start with), so being lost and retracing our route was pretty much a given while trying to find Grenville and Pearl airport, where a Soviet airplane has been moldering since the bizarre 1983 action generously called a war.

After three hours of being lost and overwhelmed by the driving culture, broken roads and heat, we reached Grenville. We were not as lost in translation as I would have expected, being the only tourists in a bustling, scalding downtown with no street signs and no apparent traffic rules. I resisted the male stereotype and asked for directions from the gas station attendant.

And the bank teller.

And the woman selling flowers.

And the shirtless T-shirt vendor.

Finally, we put the search on hold, parked the rental and strolled downtown, heeding a recommendation for Ebony, a locals joint with green curry rotis. Carib beers appeared, spicy rotis arrived and a gentle, warm rain fell for a minute as I stared out the glassless windows. Suddenly, the roads, the traffic circles, the crazed drivers and, especially, the plane didn’t matter.

It was a lost-in-the-moment moment, the kind without which I would be, well, lost.

Spud Hilton is Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and he blogs at Bad Latitude. His stories have appeared in more than 70 papers and magazines in North America -- a few of which still publish. He has been hopelessly lost on five continents.

7 Comments for The Benefits of Being Directionally Challenged

Trisha Miller 12.07.09 | 12:37 PM ET

When our kids were young and we’d take them on trips, invariably we’d wind up at some point staring at a map and discussing which way to go.  One of the kids would ask “are we lost?” and I’d tell them “no, we’re exploring!”.  We’ve never used the word “lost” in our family, so as our kids have grown up, they’ve never worried about not being where they are “supposed” to be.  Life can really be a great adventure if you allow it.

Carole Terwilliger Meyers 12.07.09 | 1:54 PM ET

Lost-in-the-moment travel is the way to go for me.  That’s what I once loved about skiing, that nothing existed but the trip down the slope.  I can achieve that feeling easily when I travel, even in my hometown (Berkeley), which I visited yesterday as a tourist would and found quite quirky and full of characters.  But I do not like being directionally lost.  It brings out a panicky feeling.  I must always be aware of true north to be comfortable.  Yet I am an avid fan of “Lost,” the TV show—I think because I know where they are even if the charcters themselves don’t.  But I think I might have enjoyed Spud’s adventure in Granada, because it is an island and I could see the ocean and so would feel assured that I would eventually find my way back “home.”  Nice story.

Lindsey 12.08.09 | 8:59 AM ET

Sometimes lost is just were you needed to be! Yesterday- I walked down one street too far, when I took my map out to check the streets, it sparked a 30 minute conversation with a passer-by that completely made my day! Serendipitous events are great!
But one thing- Iím not sure Iíve ever wondered if the map was edibleÖ does that really count for directionally lost!?

Rachel Berg 12.08.09 | 7:00 PM ET

I whole-heartedly agree with this travel philosophy, which forces you to be present in the moment, rather than focused on where you’ll be in the next moment. Being lost is so much a part of the fun, and just because at a given moment you don’t know exactly where you are on a map, doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong place. Whether it’s wandering the maze-like canals of Venice or the back roads of the Rocky Mountains, being lost can lead to some unexpected—and cherished—discoveries.

Your Holiday Matters 12.09.09 | 8:31 AM ET

... lovely topic and I too can think of many occasions when being lost led to a memorable meeting or sight. Losing one’s way should be positively celebrated. There’s only one possible exception to this tenet and that is when there is a tight deadline involved, such as a train to catch. Many years ago we missed a connection in Paris because we were seriously lost trying to find the Motorail terminus. Too late when we got there to load the vehicle, toddler daughter and I boarded the train and travelled in comfort overnight, disembarking the following morning at our destination: St Jean de Luz, way down south on the Atlantic coast, a distance of 550 miles approx.

Poor husband was obliged to find overnight accommodation and drive all the way next day. He arrived late afternoon, ashen faced.

The car?

A 2CV!!! 12.14.09 | 10:49 AM ET

Great post about being directionally challenged.  Getting lost is a great travel story.  The bonus is the people and experience you have while you’re lost.  Sometimes travelers go off the beaten path on accident!

Robin Sparks 12.16.09 | 1:15 AM ET

So that explains my DDD (directional deficit disorder). I am someone who gets lost all the time, and who has chosen to travel and live around the world. Now I understand the payoff.
Robin Sparks

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