How to Get Lost in the Woods and Why

Nov 25, 2016

The past few months in American life have been hard for Sean Hurley to comprehend. The NHPR reporter was struggling to keep up with changes in how we talk to each other, and act toward each other. Some of those shifts have been subtle, others less so. And then earlier this month, one of his favorite songwriters and poets died, Leonard Cohen, and he really felt like he was losing his way. So he grabbed his microphone and went outside….

I park my car and hide my key in a little cave of bark near the trail head and walk a while along the path to get the desk chair out from under me.

I’ve been sitting all morning, trying to work, but mostly just sitting. I feel lost, strange, wordless, moon-like and cold.  Cold in the special meaning of that word I used when I was young.  So I’ve come here to run or walk or stand somewhere, I’m not sure yet. And it’s not exactly up to me.

My body is like a horse I ride.  A horse I let do what it pleases when I go to the woods. Sometimes the horse doesn’t run.  Sometimes the horse doesn’t walk.  Sometimes the horse just stands. You go your way, I’ll go your way too, Leonard Cohen wrote.  A nine word poem on a no word poem kind of day.

Whispering away from the miles of official trail there are dozens of hard to spot secret paths made by mountain bikers I’ve never seen. I find the bat cave opening of one of these and the horse pushes us through.

This path is not a beaten down streak but a series of breadcrumbs. A tousled bed of trampled leaves in one place leads to a smooth belt of dirt between rocks and there comes a time when there is no next landmark - and we find ourselves on the edge of being lost.  You go your way, I’ll go your way too, I say to the horse.    

We take a few steps away and then a few steps more until the last known landmark cannot be seen and we are lost.

A brook rustles in the distance or it’s the wind or both and I remember how, when I was little, I used to get lost in the woods behind our house.

I was “cold” when I was young.  That’s what I called it. Other people called it shy.  “He’s shy,” they’d say.  Later I would know this coldness, this shyness, as something else. As fear. I was afraid of all there was.  Who I was.  What the world was.  And especially terrified of what might happen if they intersected.  

I was 9 the first time I got lost in the woods. I panicked. Sound stopped, my vision blurred, I couldn’t breathe.  I bolted.  I ran as fast as I could for as long as I could.  And then choking, crying, senseless, I stopped. I lay down on the ground.  Beside me was a little pine tree. I stood up.  Touched its needles. It was just my height and shape. The tree version of myself, I thought.

The tree version of myself.
Credit Sean Hurley

The second time I got lost, a few days later, I was out looking for my tree. I didn’t find it.  I panicked, bolted, stopped. I lay down.  There was no tree like me nearby, but there were some rocks and sticks and so I sat up and made a little house with them. 

A house of rocks and sticks.
Credit Sean Hurley

The third time I got lost I was looking for both. Though I panicked once more, this time I didn’t bolt.  I lay down right away.  Leaves fell from the sky like snow.  I sat up and caught a leaf that came close.  I made another little house of sticks and rocks, found another little tree that was just like me.

In this way I learned how to get lost.

Why I kept getting lost after that is simple. When I was lost, I was not cold. It was me and the earth and what happened when they came together. In the middle of nowhere, I was, finally, somewhere. 

I began to get lost on purpose.  If you ever get lost, I wanted to tell the world, here are the steps you must take. Lay down, find a tree, make a house, catch a leaf. If you ever feel cold the remedy is this: you must get lost.

We stand inside the wild house of the woods, my horse and I.  Lost but no longer cold. We lay down together and look up at the sky.  Somewhere near us we’ll find a tree that looks like us.  Soon, we’ll make a house of rocks and sticks.  The horse reaches out to catch a leaf.  You go your way, I’ll go your way too.