I’ve often heard it said that the Inuit language has 50 different words for snow. I’ve also heard that this is just a myth. I’ve further heard that it’s more linguistically complicated than simply, yes they do/no they don’t. In any case, it’s nice to think that there could be so many words for something as seemingly simple as snow, since anyone who lives where Inuit is spoken knows that snow is never that simple.
Being lost is never that simple either. There are many different kinds of lost. English has taken baby steps to show it recognizes this complexity by giving us the word misplaced. I use this term regularly, usually in reference to my phone and keys, and in most cases this works just fine because I locate them quickly, often after just a few – albeit stressful – minutes. But a few years ago I “misplaced” my keys for about two weeks. After a time of searching, followed by the onset of panic, followed by more searching (frantic, this time), followed by the settling in of a persistent, nagging, ill-at-ease feeling, I began to change my wording. No longer had I misplaced my keys. I had lost them. Then, just as I was getting ready to fork over huge sums of money to replace my car key (those modern, electronic, button-studded fobs are not cheap), I found the keys. In a boot. On the back porch. (Don’t ask. We never solved the mystery.)
Key crisis finally resolved, I still had a lexical crisis. When does misplaced become lost? What if an object goes missing for a long time, but becomes found again? Was it lost, misplaced, or something else? If it takes two weeks to resurface, should that get a different term than if it takes two years to resurface? What if it’s found decades later? What if it’s never found? Surely these different degrees of “lostness” each deserve their own word. But these vocabulary deficiencies only address the temporal aspect of being lost. What about the spatial aspect?
Being lost in a place – regardless of time – can have varying meanings as well.
As a sixth grader I got lost in the Grand Avenue Mall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On a day-trip there with my mother and her friend, I had become separated from them while in a fog of sartorial browsing. This can happen when you’re a clothing-obsessed preteen dazzled by a new and exciting retail mecca. But I knew exactly where I was – I was in the Grand Avenue Mall. I could look up and see exactly what stores I was near. What I didn’t know was how to reconnect with my guardians – moving targets that they were, likely lost in their own shopping fog. That’s one kind of lost.
Just this past summer we were lost in Leicester, England. We were driving around trying to find the Richard III Centre. We knew we were within the Leicester city limits, but we had no idea where the museum was, where we were in relation to it, or where we were in relation to the city as a whole (And we had GPS, to boot! Crappy GPS, but still…) That’s another kind of lost.
Then there was the time we got lost while running in Colorado. We had been given poor directions and were looking to circle back to our campsite. What we didn’t know is whether or not our path in fact circled back. We were in an unknown location, but we knew how to get back if push came to shove (by running back the way we’d come – a lengthy, exhausting, undesirable option) and we knew where our point of origin was (“over them there hills”) even though we couldn’t see it. What we didn’t know was exactly where we were or where our current running path would lead us – back to our campsite or deep into the foothills of the Wet Mountains? That’s yet another version of lost.
Then there’s the kind of lost that inspired this post.
A few years ago I got lost while hiking alone in the French Alps. Not the kind of lost one might normally associate with hiking in the mountains – the disoriented kind of lost in which you can’t discern either the direction from whence you came nor the one in which you should be going, a thick wall of trees meeting your gaze in every direction (which could easily become one of those “die of exposure or endure an embarrassing and expensive helicopter rescue after a night exposed to the elements” kind of losts). This was a whole different kind of lost.
We were in the midst of the final portion of our France trip – they cycling portion – stationed in the tiny Alpine village of Bessans with our Belgian friends. One day, when the cycling group was planning to bike straight from our B&B to the summit of nearby Col d’Iseran and back again, I decided to go hiking. My plan was to follow the trail from Bessans up the mostly treeless mountainside bordering the town, then follow the curve of the mountain until I reached the trail’s turn-off for the nearby town of Bonneval, a mere 4½ miles away had I chosen to drive there. Once in the town, I was assured, I would find several places where I could sate my hiking-induced hunger with coffee and pastries (pastries being the main reason I travel to France). Having consulted a map the night before, I set off.
Ignoring the valuable lessons I’d learned on my 2½-month Colorado Outward Bound course two decades earlier, I took water but very little food. (Hey, there were pastries waiting for me. I didn’t want to ruin my appetite.) Things started off well, but eventually I came to a place where the path seemed to turn into a dry wash. Was it the path or a wash? I couldn’t tell, but I followed it just the same.
Eventually I emerged from that thickety, overgrown area, relieved to find a clear trail again. Looking down to my right, I could see the tiny hamlet of Le Villaron and, shortly thereafter, a clear way-marker showing me the turn-off to get there. I was reassured by how easy it was to see the valley floor from the trail and by how obvious the turn-off to La Villaron was, even though that wasn’t my destination. Still, when I passed by a group of hikers moments later, I attempted to clarify my positioning with them, given that there was a higher path above the one we were on. Unfortunately, the language barrier proved to be too much. The exchange was a confusing mishmash of my rudimentary French – which was completely devoid of hiking terminology – and their equally sketchy English, so I left that encounter without the clarity I had sought.
I pushed on. At times the trail would fork and I had to make my best guess as to the correct path. Fearing that veering right would take me down to the valley floor and onto the road, I kept left, which took me higher up the mountainside.
Despite reassurances from my map, I began to have a nagging feeling that perhaps I was on the wrong path. During one map-consultation stop, two hikers approached from the opposite direction.
Me: Excusez-moi, messieurs. J’ai une question.
Them: Anglais ou français?
Me: Oh, thank God! You speak English!
These multilingual hikers assured me I was going in the right direction. They helpfully informed me of several things I would pass (sheep, cows, a stream) before coming upon the fork for Bonneval.
Me: Is the turn-off for Bonneval well-marked?
Me: (sinking feeling) Oh. Well, OK then. Merci beaucoup!
On I hiked, wisely keeping a mental tally of all the things they’d said I would pass.
They didn’t mention a gîte, but I passed one of those as well.
Then, finally, I found myself high above the little town of Bonneval. Coming upon a rocky protrusion that was skirted by avalanche fencing, I found myself at an impasse. Continuing to follow the trail would lead me back into a canyon, away from the town, to who knows where. No, I needed to go down. This, dear readers, is where I experienced my newest version of lost: I could see my destination with crystal clarity, but I couldn’t locate the path that would take me there. I continued further along the path, just to be sure. I retraced my steps for a long while. I went back and forth around as much of the massive rocky outcropping as I could, the portion facing the town being utterly impassable. Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, could I find a trail that forked off toward the pastries that were calling up to me.
By this point, I’d been hiking for over four hours, I was tired, and my pastry cravings were in overdrive. I could see the road below me – a tiny ribbon with matchbox cars zipping along it – but I couldn’t get to it. Totally unwilling to hike another four hours back the way I had come, I had no choice but to make my way down the mountainside.
Do you remember the opening credits of Little House on the Prairie, in which Laura Ingalls and her sisters go running down the hill and the littlest one biffs it? No? Allow Youtube to jog your memory:
I was sure that would be me, except without all the feel-good music, carefree smiles, and spry, injury-free rebounds. The slope I was on may not look that bad, but the steep alpine hillside was filled with knee-high holes. Impossible to see until you stepped in one, thanks to the tall grass, I’m pretty sure they were marmot holes. Here’s what backpacker.com has to say about this hiking hazard:
Groundhogs and marmots fashion elaborate burrow systems accessed by numerous “plunge holes”—hidden shafts that they can dive into at a moment’s notice. If you’re hiking across alpine fields in the West or meadows and pastures in the East, watch for these often camouflaged openings, lest you step in one and wrench an ankle or knee.
That’s what I feared most – breaking my ankle on the way down. (As far as I’m concerned, broken ankles have no place on one’s French sojourn.) Steep enough that I often skidded, I was beyond thankful for the hiking poles one of the Belgians had lent me that morning. Placing all of my focus on each individual step and lamenting how slowly this descent was going, I suddenly remembered my phone. Recalling that I had once phoned my mother from the summit of Colorado’s highest 14er, I reasoned that I could quite possibly get a cell signal up there as well. I dialed the husband, who not only picked up right away, but had already finished his ride and was back at the B&B. I did my best to explain my predicament: I’m lost. Well, not lost exactly, but I can’t figure out how to get where I’m going, as well as my whereabouts: somewhere on the mountainside high above the winding road that’s above the town of Bonneval. Springing into hero mode, the husband had a brainwave: the Find My iPhone app! We hadn’t used it before (nor have we since), but suddenly my phone was making a strange pinging sound. He was attempting to locate me. He called me back: I’ll be right there.
I continued to pick my way very carefully down the mountain and after a time our rental car came into view. Reuniting on the curvy road – ankles sore but not broken; ego bruised – I implored the husband not to expose my embarrassing hiking blunder to the Belgians. He never did, but since they are readers of this blog, my secret is about to be revealed. That, I can live with. What I can’t live with is the disgraceful paucity of words English possesses to describe the myriad ways of being lost.
Learned reader, your help is needed! What useful new term(s) can we introduce into the English language to differentiate the many varieties of lost?
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