I recently traveled to Hawaii in order to celebrate the life of my Great Grandmother, and to reconnect with family who live there. I had only visited once before, and had been traveling with five other family members at the time. Anyone who has ever taken a family vacation can testify to the logistical nightmare of organizing more than two people around any particular group activity, and this time I was eager to explore this new part of my personal history, and to connect with this new branch of my family tree on my own. My uncle generously lent me his pickup, and after coffee each day I was out the door to uncover whatever it was that I could manage to find.
I had no particular agenda. I had a rough idea of some things I wanted to see or do based on old family stories and late-night Pinterest perusal from my prior trip, but I didn’t want to make concrete plans. I didn’t want to go to every tourist destination on the islands and wait in line and sign waivers and get the same sunburn as everyone else. I wanted a sense of discovery, of finding something out for myself.
I spent the majority of my time on Oahu getting more or less lost. I picked a direction for the day: North, South, East, or West, and headed out. I made wrong turns, I ended up in strange places, and I discovered more incredible views, people, and experiences than I could have hoped for. Around every corner of Oahu unfolded an entirely different vista and often I was alone with myself, which was the best part.
Being alone with myself is something I have not always been comfortable with. Fear of missing out, fear of being left behind, and fear of inadequacy used to make me the go-to-social-butterfly, sometimes insecure and often hovering. My relationship with myself started taking a turn for the better after college (as it is wont to do, I have come to understand). In particular, I started getting more comfortable being alone through independent trips in the City. Not going to work alone but exploring new places; deliberately getting out of my own comfort zone, my own familiar neighborhood, and finding my way back home. I spent long hours walking at all times of day through strange neighborhoods, mostly in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. I had no particular destination or time frame, so there was no pressing impetus to Google my route. During these long meandering days, I learned how to get around using important landmarks instead of maps. Through these walks I came to understand New York, and myself, better.
My grandmother recently told me that getting lost forces you to “go outside of yourself;” it forces you to become less self-absorbed and really pay attention to what is happening around you because you aren’t in your own element. She says that, when you are getting lost or going on an adventure you have to put aside your notion of what you can and can’t do, or what the world is and what it isn’t, in order to navigate this unknown space. She says that when you do that, entirely different perspectives open up to you. It wasn’t until I was standing on the edge of a cliff off of a scenic highway, munching goldfish and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the truck bed and watching the horizon that I realized I hadn’t been alone with myself to take it all in for quite a long time.
I was noticing things about the island I hadn’t before – the striation of colors in the cliff face, the pattern of wave motion, the fishermen at the bottom of the cliff tucked just out of sight from the roadway. During my walks in New York, I relished the tiny details I found – a messaged hastily scrawled on the Brooklyn Bridge, bottles and planters carefully arranged on the steps of a stoop, music, smells – the things that make a specific place, like a particular block, unique.
When you are getting lost, you have to become more self-reliant. You have to go on the adventure, and then get yourself back to some known point. You have to do it on your own, without someone to hold your hand or guide you. I have an assignment where I ask my students to go on an adventure – choose a random subway line, and get off at a random station to explore it. Without fail, students always ask me for more direction: where should they go? What should they do? The point of the assignment is that it’s up to them – if they don’t go get lost and then get un-lost now, as college freshmen. How are they going to do it later on in life? I don’t expect them to turn off their phones and get lost in the moment, and New York City is hardly an expansive wilderness where lost can mean death if you lack serious survival skills, but the initial fear and reluctance with which my students accept this assignment is fascinating.
Getting lost allows you to be more deliberate in how you choose to engage with other people, or not. You begin to appreciate the importance of spectatorship- watching others in this space you have come to. Are they also lost? Are they in their element? Do they notice you, and do they seem to understand that you are out of place? This changes each moment: are you at a major attraction, a neighborhood, a local haunt? You can choose to talk to them, to ask for help (because asking is sometimes necessary and important), or just be. Unless you are trespassing on sacred ground (which you can generally tell by being a studious observer), sometimes you can just stay lost if you want.
When I was in Hawaii, I wanted to learn about the history of the places I was discovering for myself, about the language and food, the family I was meeting, the culture and music. Not every neighborhood in New York City always inspired this kind of curiosity because they are not always so culturally different, but getting lost in them made me wonder about the changes they have experienced, the kinds of people living there, and their futures. I find that exploring not only requires some measure of an inquisitive mind, but can foster one as well.
A lot of things can get in the way of walking, of being alone, and of having that relationship with yourself. For me, it was a combination of freelance and contract work that took me off the streets and down into the Subway, seeking transit that was faster and further than I could walk. The cold winter, and constant weariness exacerbated the problem until I felt like I couldn’t get away from my life long enough to be with myself. I have been frustrated with the City; its shitty weather, and the parts of it that can feel constantly out of reach. I have been frustrated with myself; with my lower motivation, and my dwindling curiosity about the world around me as work or responsibility distracts me.
Getting lost can be a luxury. For one thing, you need to have time to do it. Having safe passage throughout the City, or any place, is not universal for everyone. Strangers are sometimes unwelcome in communities, seen as outsiders perhaps over-eager to move in. Violence can befall women, people of color, and LGBT*Q individuals. During my walks I tend to gravitate towards well-populated streets with many businesses and foot traffic, or parks with a lot of people. I take fewer and fewer late night adventures these days, but when I was a photography student I had a friend who would come with me – we would wander through the city for hours, staying close enough for safety but far enough to be in our own space.
Unfortunately street harassment is an issue for me as a woman, regardless of if I’m getting lost or walking to the subway station on my commute to work. I have learned through observation and practice how to pay attention to subtle clues that tell me I am trespassing in a place that I am unwelcome, and from there I make decisions about changing my route to suit my comfort level.
You probably have places you wonder about – maybe you have them written down. Some of them are likely far flung – like Hawaii, and some of them are probably in your region, state, maybe even your city. When I began my adventures in getting lost, I found coming home to be a ritual in its own right. Reflection and remembrance play huge parts on the impact each place has had on me. It’s almost as if these adventures become a different kind of map – for your personal growth and understanding. Whether you keep a journal where you write them down, take pictures, doodle, or collect found objects; whatever you need to do to preserve the experience is important so that later you can go back and consider the way these experiences change you, the way you learn about yourself and a new place, about moving through spaces and navigating the public realm. You don’t need to buy a plane ticket to start getting lost and start finding out more about yourself, you just need some curiosity.