I stand up to admire my haul, and for the first time, pause to look around. I have been so hyper-focused on the forest floor, which is blooming with glorious, riotous eruptions of chanterelles, that I haven’t stopped to look up in … 30 minutes? An hour? Two?
Hmm. I wonder where everyone is. Probably over the next hill or dale, scavenging their own beautiful loot. I call out. Silence.
I came up to this high mountain glade with three friends and a dog named Spicy to hunt for mushrooms. Shortly after we left the trail and plunged into the woods, I began finding clusters of small apricot-colored chanterelles — my favorite of the edible fungus kingdom. I was soon in a bonanza-fueled state of rapture. Each time I stood up from harvesting and took a few steps, another orange eruption. More?! How is this possible? So. Many. Beautiful. Mushrooms. I forgot about my friends, my problems, schedules and barely noticed the mosquitos that were eating me alive. I was absolutely in awe, like that guy in the viral YouTube video who saw a double rainbow. I gleefully followed the trail of gold deeper into the forest, humming the Christmas carol “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” my mesh bag growing heavier by the minute.
When I finally come to my senses though, I have zero idea where my friends are. I’m not even sure where I am. These woods are dense, and I didn’t pay attention to direction during my amblings. I begin yelling louder. Still nothing. I lace my fingers in my mouth and gave my biggest whistle, which is as loud as a siren. I am sure the dog will hear it and come running. It doesn’t.
A current of panic began to run through me. The forest is quiet, rustling only with the faint breeze. I believe I know the general direction of the trail, and I start to head that way. But the landscape doesn’t look familiar, and I don’t come across any evidence of my cuttings. Soon I arrive at the edge of marsh; this is definitely unfamiliar. The panic grows. I yell and whistle some more, and again am answered with silence. I have my phone, but there’s no service. Where the hell is this trail?
Worst-case scenarios began to unspool across my brain like movie reels, and I suddenly feel foolish. I should have paid attention, stayed in hearing range of my friends. No matter how delectable, a bag of mushrooms is definitely not worth a night spent alone in the woods. What kind of mess have I gotten myself into?
In today’s world of technologic connections, smartphone GPS systems and robots like Siri and Alexa, getting lost isn’t as easy as it once was. But does our dependence on technology impair our ability to follow innate directions, figure our way out of tricky situations or fend for ourselves?
Researchers argue that is does. Relying on computers to tell us where we are, they say, has a use-it-or-lose-it effect on the brain. The less we practice navigation in the old-fashioned sense — by getting out a map, paying attention to the sun’s location in the sky or using powers of recall — the less our brains know how to do it.
Experts assert that getting lost is an important tool for human growth for other reasons, too. It forces people to utilize high reasoning, intuition and lessons of memory. It often entails asking strangers for directions — which forces social connections. And, getting lost pulls us out of the routines and well-trodden pathways of life, putting us squarely in the moment as our brains work to forge solutions.
At the moment though, I’m not concerned with high reasoning or brain health. I’m too focused on how in the world I’ll find my way back home. I double back, and before long reach the edge of a small stream. This is a good sign — I know that a waterway runs parallel to the trail further on; this could be the same one.
I strike out perpendicular to the stream, hiking up and over hills and through shrouded pockets of forest. Eventually, the trail appears, a welcome ribbon of brown dirt.
Soon, I find my friends. They had hiked way ahead, sticking to the trail, more occupied with chatting than hunting for mushrooms. We return home, where I clean mushrooms for two days, feast like a queen and make up my mind to pay more attention from now on.
These days, I still avoid getting lost. But from time to time, I’ll wander off-trail with my husband, who likes to test his sense of place with a good bushwhack (we never stray far). And instead of panicking, I think of it like those crosswords we tackle: healthy workouts for the brain.