I’m two cold, windy hours into a run in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Looking out from this exposed granite-bouldered ridge, valleys spread out, hardwood leaves flaming with autumn’s color. I can see where glaciers carved out valleys, where a river wore down a gorge. Near and distant summits stand out against a deep blue sky. Inspiring. Beautiful. But I’m completely lost. And that’s exactly what I was hoping for.
Here in New England, often as not, you’re hemmed in by canopies of birch, pine and maple. Unable see more than a hundred feet, you run through tapestries of foliage, jumping boulders and hopping roots, gasping straight up the mountain. Keeping upright is all-consuming, and even then, it’s a dubious proposition. My body’s geography of cuts, bruises and scratches is a testament to faceplanting, breaking branches, bongo-sliding wet rocks, and just straight out wiping out. As such, running these trails is a beautiful lesson in being in the moment. But obsession with “real-time data” can give you a metaphysical learning disability.
Whether I’m running some bony mountain trail, skimming on February’s Nordic skis, or exploring the bustling streets of Hanoi, I’m a dedicated practitioner of getting lost, utterly immersing myself in movement until an hour or two (or five) later, I find myself at some trail junction, summit, busy intersection, or dead end, wondering, “how the hell did I get here?” and “how the hell do I get out of here?” More often than not, my instinct is to not take out a map, not to fire up the GPS, but instead to schlump, clomp and climb until I have some sense of my position. As in, I’ve been lost without water and food for three hours before I even thought about taking out my map. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. My heart beat faster, my senses heightened, and I was forced to make sense of the landscape, to actually think about where on earth I was.
The majority of runners and other people that you see in the backcountry these days are wired up with GPS, trail guides, topo maps on their phones and altimeters on their watches. Every running journal, hiking magazine, and backcountry forum recommends that you head out on the trails with medical supplies, a SPOT tracker, a “personal clothing system” made up of NASA synthetic fibers, a satellite phone, and two pair of extra carbon fiber underwear. But that’s mostly because they don’t want be held responsible if something happens. And because they’re trying to sell you something.
Those editors, underwear manufacturers, physicists and marketers might argue that my position is willfully ignorant at best, recklessly dangerous at worst, and, at the very least snobby and close-minded. But trail-running, when it really counts, is a direct, raw experience where life is reduced down to its most basic elements. Movement. Adrenaline. Exploration. Pain. Speed. Stillness. Beauty. An art co-created with the wild earth. To run is to know what a deer feels like, to know the feeling of rain and mud and hail and snow and tree branches and sun and cactus and blood and cold against the skin, and inside the soul. So often, that experience is, at best, mediated, and at worst, diminished, not only by all those layers of gore-tex and nylon, but also by heart-rate monitoring, altimetering, calorie-counting, and topo-mapping.
Of course, your average running magazine has dozens of ads featuring your favorite celebrity runners trotting purposefully, beards flowing through the San Juans/Alps/Cascades/High Sierra, trusty GPS on the wrist, artisan wicking socks under the shoe (featuring some groundbreaking “new technology”) that they’ve co-designed with their sponsored company, and some futuristic variation on the trucker hat on their head. Their hydration vest weighs three ounces and is made of the same material as the toilets in the international space station. And there is good reason for all this STUFF. You’ll get lost and the GPS will help you get found; you’ll get dehydrated and the proprietary electrolytes will get you moving again; you’ll get cold and the organically grown wool will warm you up; you’ll get sunburned, frostbitten, poison-ivyed, out-of-fashioned, left behind, chicked, duded, pain-caved and window-shaded.
But those same human billboards whose blogs state their strava stats have spent thousands of hours not only running, but running lost. The reason they look so confident is because they’re not worried about getting lost. You don’t win hundred mile trail races without having logged thousands of trail miles, and you can bet hundreds of those miles didn’t go as they planned. It rained. Their ankles turned. They turned, the wrong way for five miles. In a blizzard. Without gloves. And I’m willing to bet that they wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s one of the main reasons that they run. In a world where we are fitbitted, droned and iphoned, trail running is one of the few places left where it’s possible to directly encounter nature. To encounter something outside of oneself. And the point is not for everything to go smoothly. Otherwise, we’d all be inside playing video games, or worse yet, watching sports on TV where we watch someone else have an adventure.
Getting lost running is no different than getting lost in a lover’s eyes or a good book. To stop and check your watch mid-run is analogous to pausing lovemaking for a digital readout on dopamine levels and orgasm likelihood. Ugh. The point is to drown in the experience, to get sweaty, dirty, passionate, confused, and to rely on your own animal senses and honed evolutionary intelligence to get yourself into adventures and out of jams. I want to be turned on, in all senses. But the minute we turn on devices, part of us turns off. Otherwise, we might as well just be thumbing our way through social media.
Obviously, there is a middle ground here. We don’t want to end up with Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless, who probably died largely because he didn’t have a map. And the point is not to go on miserable survivalist runs. But as the world veers more and more in the direction of comfort and ease, we would do well to hold our line. If you haven’t been lost, you don’t appreciate knowing where you are.