Paris Goodnight: Lost and alone in the woods — with no GPS

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 17, 2022

If you’re like me, you can imagine a day when that trusty little invention of GPS navigation stops working. Anybody who has worked on any kind of computer system for long enough knows that sometimes bugs get in and cause crazy things to happen. Or sometimes make nothing happen. Either way, we’ve become so dependent on all our technological gadgets to keep our lives rolling along smoothly that we forget how we’ve survived before they came along.

It hasn’t been that long ago that we were forced to figure out how to get from here to there by using such ancient inventions as maps. We also spent a lot of time in our Boy Scout days learning how to navigate using a compass.

I doubt younger folks would have much luck getting around using either of those without a couple of lessons from their elders.

But what got me thinking about such things was a time when I found myself off the beaten path in the woods with no idea where I was. Back then, there were no cell phones to pull out and get a Google Earth view of my position. But I figured I wasn’t really that far off from where I should’ve been and it didn’t take too long to get back to where I recognized some of the scenery and was able to arrive safely back at my starting point.

There were a few moments  when I was sweating out the details of how lost I really was, and it’s easy to let your mind play tricks on you in such a situation — and then really  get carried away.

I’ve spent some time in Linville Gorge, and if you look down from a peak into the Grand Canyon of the East, you know there’s a lot of territory where you can lose your way. Each summer when I worked at a camp not far from there, we would hear stories of some group that got lost and needed rescuers to come in and lead them back to safety.

These days, if you can get a cell signal, you won’t likely need to call for help when you can usually find your way back to a trail if you’re not in too deep or hurt somehow.

My real thought when I made the choice to get off the trail in the first place was that I wasn’t really lost because I wasn’t going anywhere in particular anyway. Can you be lost if you don’t have a destination in mind?

My other thought was if you want to boldly go where no man has gone before, well you have to get off the beaten path to do it. We don’t have too many places around like that. Somebody has always gone before you and even when you’re in the most faraway wilderness, you can look down and find a can or a piece of plastic that someone left behind.

I’m hoping that one day people will learn not to leave such stuff where it doesn’t belong, but that’s not something you can easily teach adults. Maybe the younger ones can get that instilled at an early age and then carry the idea of leaving only footprints behind if they choose to venture out.

It seems like it’s easier to lose your way out in the wilderness of the mountains, but I can also imagine sailors getting off their planned route and wondering just where they were in the days before our modern advances in navigation. Without stars to see or if storm clouds blocked the sun, I’m sure you could easily be turned around and miss out on where you’re supposed to be until something comes into view that recalibrates your sense of direction. I’m sure that’s not a good feeling if the wind is blowing you in ways that you don’t know where you are.

Getting lost by yourself is bad enough, but it’s a completely different feeling if you do the same thing with someone else too — especially if you’re in a car and that someone else is the one who said you should stop and ask for directions. But you didn’t do that because you knew exactly where you were going — or thought you did until you lost your way. Thank goodness for GPS removing that hazard.

Paris Goodnight is editor of the Salisbury Post.