Humankind’s ingenuity is so incredible that getting lost is almost as much a thing of the past as the buggy whip. It’s been at least twenty years since I found myself driving around in a state of frenzy because I had no idea where I was or how to get back on track. Those were the days of big paper maps that folded into glove compartment sized rectangles that waited patiently for use. Back then we always had one for the city, one for the state and one for the entire country. Using them required stopping the car if I was alone, finding the flashlight and hoping that it was fully charged if it was dark, and praying that I would be able to figure out where I was as a starting point for creating my route. It could be a frightening experience especially before cell phones were as common a possession as a bar of soap.
The last time that I was truly lost was back in the late nineteen nineties. I had attended an evening event on the near north side of Houston, an area that was quite unfamiliar to me. I was a Magnet School Coordinator back then an I had set up an information booth at a fair designed to introduce parents to the various programs in the schools around the city of Houston. The math/science offering at my campus was rather popular and so I had been quite busy answering questions from eager parents. I had not really noticed that most of the other coordinators had packed away their tri-boards and pamphlets and headed to their cars. By the time the last parent had left I realized that I was all alone inside the school and I felt a sudden sense of foreboding.
I gathered my things as quickly as possible and rushed to the dark parking lot where my vehicle sat in the shadows. I felt quite uneasy about being all by myself in a place known for a somewhat high crime rate. I ran across the parking lot in a kind of frenzy, looking over my shoulder and dropping some of my things in my hurry. Once I was inside my automobile I locked the doors and finally felt a modicum of safety. I was only mildly comforted by the fact that I thought I knew exactly how to get back home and I found courage in that fact that I had my flip phone in case of an emergency.
It took me no time to realize that I had somehow become turned around and I soon realized that I was wandering aimlessly around the dark neighborhood. When I drove past the same group of men drinking and arguing in their front yard I knew that I was going in circles an that I was lost. I tried to get a view of the Houston skyline because I reasoned that if I followed the lights of the buildings as though they were stars I would ultimately reach a point that I recognized and be on my way back home. Sadly a fog had added to the mystery of the night and shrouded the sky in a miasmic goo.
I was becoming more and more frantic as I saw one unfamiliar street name after another. I felt as though I was replaying the journey of Apocalypse Now in real time. I finally thought to reach for my phone and call my husband, Mike, who had grown up on the north side of Houston. I was near tears when the phone rang again and again making me worry that he had already gone to bed and was sound asleep. After all it was nearing eleven.
Just when I was on the verge of total panic I heard Mike’s voice on the line. I explained my situation and he calmly told me to find a street sign and tell him exactly where I was by looking at the name and number of the first marker I found. He was stunned when I finally gave him the information he needed and wondered aloud how I had gone so astray, but luckily he knew exactly where I was. From that point forward he guided me block by block until I was finally on the interstate highway that I knew quite well.
I did not know then that one day I would own a smart phone with a personal guide named Siri who would direct me seamlessly even in cities and towns where I had never before been. I did not even dream that my future car would be fitted with a GPS system that would keep me heading in the right direction no matter where I went. Such wonders were still in the future and getting lost was still a frightening experience, especially on a foggy night in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
We have so many wondrous inventions these days that we tend to take them for granted. There are generations who have never had an experience like I did on that night. It is unfathomable to them that one would be lost and without resources for finding the way back home. Reading of Hanzel and Gretel leaving crumbs in the forest as a guide back to civilization is a quaint idea for them, and yet I am from a generation when being lost was a real and scary possibility. If not for my good fortune of having a phone in my car back then I don’t know what might have become of me because all of the places of business where I hoped to get directions were closed for the night. Hopefully I would have eventually encountered a clue that might have led me to my destination or a source of help but I would have no doubt been overtaken by anxiety before that happened.
We like to complain a great deal about how horrific the world has become but I know that our new fears have been counterbalanced by the elimination of old ones. The days of feeling helplessly alone and lost are not as likely as they once were. For that I am deeply grateful.