This post has literally nothing to do with soccer/football. The only time the name of that sport appears is the previous sentence. I just thought I’d write this.
Have you ever gotten lost?
When I was a kid, people asked me for directions on a fairly frequent basis. First, to cover the obvious: this was before cell phones, before ubiquitous GPS; I am an old. Second, I lived in a small town that was set up in a grid, which meant all directions given were some form of “go x blocks and turn [left/right], then go y blocks.” You couldn’t really get lost, you could just miss your turn and have to drive around another block or, at absolute worst, find yourself on the edge of town and have to double back a mile to downtown where you’d ask some idiot kid in a backwards Kansas hat where the bowling alley was.1
I don’t mean lost like that, where you can just ask another person where to go, but like lost lost. I got turned around in a Walmart as a kid once and kind of panicked a little because I couldn’t find my parents. But even then, I knew they were there somewhere and that you couldn’t get lost in Walmart for multiple days. You’d eventually be found and maybe you’d even get an Icee out of it.2
And just to be clear, I also don’t mean lost like unsure of which deity to follow or whether your fascination with Pablo Neruda is “just a phase” like Meredith has been telling people while rolling her eyes. Sure, you would love to be able to read Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada without it being passed through the lens of a translator, but that’s not the only reason you signed up for that Spanish course. It’s an important language to learn for a variety of reasons. No, Meredith, it’s very different from when you bought Rosetta Stone German after reading the introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou five weeks ago.
No, I mean, lost like in the woods. Lost somewhere there’s a greater than zero possibility of being eaten by a predator within the next few hours or dying of exposure. I’m not totally sure what all “dying of exposure” encompasses, but however broad a category it is, I recommend avoiding it. Every year there are awful stories about people wandering around in places they probably shouldn’t have gone and paying steep prices for their lack of planning or their overconfidence in the face of nature’s wrath.
The closest I got was one summer when I nearly fell down a mountain. Twice.
I was about 15 at the time and I took a church youth group trip to South Dakota. The stated purpose of taking 10 high schoolers to the upper Midwest was for a service project involving setting up a summer camp on Standing Rock Reservation prior to the arrival of the kids and being exposed to the realities of life on the reservation through meeting with tribal groups. Our work on the summer camp, nestled alongside a tributary to the Missouri, involved cleaning out buildings, assisting a carpenter, digging archery pits and a new outhouse hole, and erecting teepees. In the evenings we watched the prairie grass and one night we saw the northern lights. Then we survived a near direct tornado hit, although there were some minor injuries and a night spent in a storm shelter with a friend (and unafraid) family of mice.
As a post-trip wind-down before we went home, we drove to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. That night we all shared a cabin in the Black Hills. It was late afternoon when we arrived and the adults set about prepping dinner while 3 of us snuck off to see what the surrounding area was like. I can’t really explain what our thinking was, but we stood out back of the cabin and look out at a large, steep hill nearby and decided to climb it.
We didn’t tell anyone where we were going and we didn’t take anything with us. A lack of planning and overconfidence in the face of nature’s potential, anyone? It wasn’t brutally hot and it wasn’t late, being mid summer and the sun still in the sky, but it was presumptuous of us, of course. We would simply go to the top of that hill and then return.
Looks can be deceiving and by “steep” I mean, clinging to rocks and scrambling to make headway. I was third on the ascent and what little grass there was fell away in tufts under the hands and feet of my companions. I slipped a few times and while I doubt death would have been the result of falling, by the time I was most of the way up the side, it was obvious that we weren’t climbing a hill. It was a Savage Mountain of Evil Intent and any plunge to the bottom would include at least some number of broken bones.
Once I’d dragged myself to the top, we looked down at what we had climbed and we all agreed that it would be suicide to try and descend. We would simply have to walk down the back side and loop around. Sounds easy enough.
The back side was a warren of moss-slick boulders and 15-foot drops onto jagged rocks. We painstakingly worked our way down. At one point, I slipped on a loose bit of moss and found myself holding on to a small bulge in a rock by my elbow, the drop in front of me looking not just like a broken bone or two, but like a month in the ICU. There was a jump at one point, cushioned at the bottom by pine needles and the first 2 did it. I found an alternate route that didn’t involve potential compound fractures to ankles simply by climbing back up beyond the point I had slipped and hoisting myself over a boulder. Below that was a natural, rambling path of sorts that led down to where my friends were just completing the jump.
It felt a bit anti-climactic to emerge unscathed at the bottom, but by the time we got down, we realized something more profound: We had no idea where we were.
The descent had twisted and turned and we could guess which way we had to go, but it was just that: a guess. A guess that included looking at the sun and questioning where it had been in the sky when we first looked at the mountain we had just conquered. None of us remembered. It’s one of those moments when you begin to understand the enormity of your actions and the enormity of the gulf between you and one of those survivalist types.
In the end, we were just 15-year olds with no water and a regrettable penchant for wandering off. We found a stream and followed it for a while because it seemed to wind around the base of the hill slash mountain slash craggy peak slash eye of Mordor we had just descended. It’s hard to know how long we were walking, but suffice to say it was far too long to be getting us closer to our cabin, our parents (2 of us had dads chaperoning the trip, although perhaps not all that well in retrospect), and the dinner our bellies were beginning to ask for. I was already in “Where will we find food??” mode, which is definitely the mark of a wilderness survival pro.
The reality of being stuck out in the wilderness for the rest of eternity, but filtered through the lens of a teenager—Are there bears here? What about wolves? Mosquitos!—was sinking in a bit as we emerged from the woods into a small clearing. A cabin sat to one side and then just beyond it, a road. We quickly crossed the clearing and stood at the road. Which way should we go?
I calculated our next steps by mentally retracing our steps. Left, I said. I have an innate sense of direction. The other 2 thought about it.
“Right,” they said and democracy dictated that we go the dumb way they chose. We would turn around in a few minutes, once it was clear that I was correct. So we walked to the right, turned the first bend a few dozen yards away, and came into sight of our cabin.
If there’s some deep lesson here, it’s that getting lost is part of life, since there’s no road map to growing up, no detailed instructions you can memorize for how to survive, and exposure is a pretty good thing, usually. Just make sure you pack some water along the way and maybe a granola bar. Obviously, one thing is that I’m happy GPS exists and another is that my friends seem to know I’m a complete idiot who can’t be trusted. To find the latter out at 15 may be a bit harsh, but it was something that needed to be learned by everyone involved. Or at least by me. Maybe only by me. Everyone else seems to know it already.
When we went into the cabin, dusty and returned from facing mortal peril, everyone else was just finishing up cooking. We were assigned roles such as setting the table and filling water pitchers. No one had noticed our absence.
Me, obviously. The kid in the hat was me. Really the only difference between me then and me now is that the hat is forwards and I have a beard. Otherwise, it’s just the same person.
I eventually found my parents, just to be clear. I am not currently still in that Walmart, writing to you from a wifi enabled fridge and surviving on Little Debbie cakes.