It’s good to get lost once in a while. Not lost in civilization, where you can just stop and ask for directions, but lost in deep nature—wilderness, boundless sea or endless mountains. The feeling is frightening yet liberating. My scariest experience with being lost came on a 2016 trip to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I was exploring Mt. Wai’ale’ale, the second rainiest place on Earth. Getting there required hiking up a river through dense jungle. But not long after I set out, I took a wrong turn.
It somewhat registered in the back of my mind that the river didn’t look as big as I thought it did in the pictures I’d seen, but it wasn’t long before I was reassured by the pink ribbons referred to in the guidebooks. Arriving at some falls, I could see the ribbons marked a trail up and away from the river, which the guidebooks had also mentioned. The trail ascended steeply into heavy brush, but the pink ribbons continued to mark the way. After climbing for about thirty minutes, there was almost no trail left. Muddy patches showed only dog footprints. I’d heard of hunters with dogs using the trails, and the few people I saw on the drive up the day before had been hunters with dogs. I wondered what the dogs hunted, and hoped it wasn’t lost explorers. I’d read about the local wild boar population too, and didn’t find much comfort in the prospect of confronting either a boar or a hunting dog on my quickly disappearing trail.
Finally, even the dog tracks vanished and there was simply no trail to follow, just dense brush too thick to bushwhack through. I made a U-turn. At least the pink ribbons made it easy to retrace my footsteps back to the river. With no other trails in sight, I started to slog up the stream, as the guidebooks had said I would have to do much of the way. But a half hour later the stream had dwindled to a trickle, with dense banana trees and some prickly berry bushes completely obscuring the sky. I foolishly hacked my way through too much of this brush—brush so dense even a machete wouldn’t have helped, if I’d had one. High up the wrong river, surrounded by dense jungle, it occurred to me that if I slipped and fell and was incapacitated, it would be a very long time before anyone would find my corpse.
My despair rang eerily true to an account I’d read about Moke Kupihea’s misadventure in the Kauaian jungle years earlier:
Desperate thoughts came to my mind: I would never get out of the forest alive; I would never be found. I envisioned myself becoming like the skeletal remains I had seen in the burial caves in the upper Waimea Valley. I was lost and losing strength. Every move now became a great chore. As total darkness set in, I felt completely hopeless. I sank to the forest floor amid the roots and rocks and curled up in desperation.
Eventually, I was able to hack my way back down the waterway, wondering with every step if the guidebook’s advice to not even attempt this hike was right. Several hours later, after following the right waterway, I arrived at the headwaters of the Wailua River, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. As much as the beauty of my destination stayed with me after the adventure, the terror and elation were just as strong. it reminded me of plunging down the Appalachian Mountains at high speed on my bike—that feeling of, “This is incredible! And this is incredibly dangerous!” Some of the exhilaration, I think, is in facing death. Fear comes more from uncertainty than from reality, and when we face death we reduce its uncertainty. Ironically, death is about the only certainty in life, but we spend our lives deluding ourselves into treating it like an uncertainty. The mathematician, Raymond Smullyan summed it up, saying, “Why should I worry about dying? It’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”
Lost is liberating. Left and right, up and down, right and wrong all merge into meaninglessness. “The absence of alternatives frees the mind marvelously,” Henry Kissinger once said. But its opposite is also true. An infinity of equal alternatives also frees the mind. When we’re lost, we can strike out in one direction with the same confidence or lack of it that we have in any other direction. It may be similar to solving a Zen koan. Exhausting our mental machinations we just do, purely and without reservation. I would bet that more lost souls have found their way out by sticking with their first plan of escape than by second-guessing it and changing course.
On my Mt. Wai’ale’ale detour, I tried path after path, each one eventually fizzling into an impenetrable tangle of brush. It reminded me that our efforts to solve a koan fizzle as well if we try to think our way through it. I can’t claim to have ever solved one, but I have been asked to by more than one Zen master. Both presented me with the same riddle: “What is emptiness?” The first time, I tried to answer by drawing a circle on the floor before my stern Japanese master. As he gazed down through half-open eyes, I could almost hear a sigh and the phrase, “Back to the drawing board,” forming in his mind. Years later, I was asked the same question by an American master. Having struck out with my imaginary drawing, I cupped my hands to form an empty bowl. Looking puzzled, he asked, “What is that?”
“Emptiness,” I replied hesitantly. “That’s just a concept,” came the response. Back to the drawing board. But perhaps dead ends are the path to the open road—the free way. They force us to let go of our knowledge, our ego and our certainty. Striking off on a path that we know nothing about can be liberating. Not knowing if the journey will end in “success” or “failure” forces us to let go of both concepts and just move forward. Retracing our steps when we hit another dead end, whether in the green jungles of Kauai or the mental ones of the koan, is the ultimate frustration. “There is nothing that strengthens the ego like being right,” as spiritual teacher Ekhart Tolle says. So perhaps lost souls like me can take solace in knowing that nothing weakens it like being wrong.
Would I have found the ultimate liberation if I had met my end in the Kauai jungle? In the end, I did make it out alive, celebrating with the mental ticker tape parade that come with accomplishing a difficult task. But it wasn’t the sense of accomplishment that stuck with me, it was the liberation of being lost. Now, I find myself planning new adventures where I can get lost; not forever—just long enough to experience the harsh euphoria of being completely lost in a strange and foreboding landscape again.