The other day, I got lost on an early morning beach walk. Getting lost took me off guard because I was not in a new place; I had walked that beach before. But, I had accessed it by a new entry point, and because of that, I thought I might have trouble recognizing the way in when I needed it to be the way out, and I had taken a picture with my phone of the path. I had also timed myself as I walked along the sand, figuring that if I noted how long I’d been walking, when I turned around to head back, I’d land at the right place in roughly the same amount of time.
That’s not what happened. I walked out 45 minutes and turned around and walked back another 45 minutes, listening to music and thinking as I went along. When I stopped to see where I was, nothing looked familiar and I knew that I had either overshot the path – or not yet arrived. I looked at the picture on my phone – the image showed a path in the middle of some long grass and lazily undulating hills of no particular height, and no houses. My precautionary move was worthless. I hadn’t widened my lens enough to capture any of the important contextual clues that would situate my path from all the others. And because I had taken the picture, I hadn’t paid real attention my surroundings.
Where was I? The sun was getting hot and I didn’t have any water with me. A decision needed to be made. Would the better thing be to turn around and go back, to see if I’d recognize what I’d already failed to recognize, or keep going forward, to see what was around the bend? For many minutes, I was mystified by my failure to find my way. My next move felt wrong even as I made it – I turned around and took several steps back in the direction from whence I’d come but, looking around for the sandy path in the long grass that would bring me home, I found only other paths to other homes.
I stood still for a while, thinking about who I am and what I should do. I’m many things – but principally, I’m a learner, and learners like to move forward. I turned around again, resolved to find my way to a place that I could make sense of. While the picture I’d taken was an unhelpful resource, I had other knowledge that I could rely on. I knew the contour of this beach in a general sense, the way it is dotted with public beaches up and down the coast. After twenty minutes more, I saw a wooden staircase leading from the beach to a parking lot and knew my unexpected course in wayfinding was over.
Reflecting on the experience, I made connections to what happens in both life and school. Sometimes our plans go sideways, our preparation is insufficient, and we can’t bring ourselves to ask for help because we believe strongly that we should know how to do this and plus, everyone else seems to be all set. We feel disoriented – more because we thought we had it all figured out than because we are actually lost in space. On a beach with homes dotting the dunes, I was never as alone as I had felt. If I had asked for help, or water, I’m sure I would have gotten both. But something about the challenge felt small enough and also important enough to deal with alone.
What drives us to go out in search of new experiences when we know that the search will likely bring as much discomfort as it does excitement? There are many ways to describe that impulse – but for me, it’s about that ripple of adrenaline that runs across the mind like lightning when we look up from our confusion and find that we’re not where we thought we’d be but the new place, while yet unknown, will soon be mapped and made familiar.