I recall the first time in my life I was lost. My father had taken me pheasant hunting near Sauk Centre and he crossed a stream, turned and called back to me to follow him across. I was very young, so young that the concept of across was not one I understood. I began walking up the shallow, narrow central Minnesota stream — bewildered, confused and truly unaware as to why I was not getting closer to him, and instead was trudging into deeper water. My memory dims from here; likely he impatiently had to take his mind off the prey he was after and tend to me, reaching a hand across the stream and reuniting us.
How many losses are tied to actually being lost? Instead of being grounded on the land around us, we weave and waver, stumbling through life stages with no sense of direction. Marching ahead to the next job, the expected adult developmental stage, the next achievement. Using those milestones as an outline for our lives. We feel calmed by the order, but are we really following the wonderful things that are pulling and nagging at us? If I simply follow traditional expectations, and don’t veer from them, aren’t I in fact lost? I’ve often wondered at families where the expectation was that a child should follow the family career. What a loss to that young adult, to never feel that confusion and uncertainty that results from having to search out a career that actually fits — the career that calls to them. The work, paid or unpaid, that allows you to be lost in the depths of that work.
The hike to Magnetic Rock
It’s curious how lost can be bad, as in I can’t get across the stream, and it can be good — as in, I am so deeply focused in my teaching that the day flies by in a moment. This summer we hiked to a very curious place in Minnesota. Magnetic Rock is a moderate hike off the Gunflint Trail. I chose the hike as it sounded within my hiking abilities and it had a big payoff at the end, a tall rectangular rock, jutting out of the surrounding forest and rounded in a most unusual and suspicious way. Suspicious because it looks like no other rock around it, suspicious because the geological explanation was that a glacier had pushed it here, and suspicious because it causes a compass to spin out of control. Frankly, it looks like it was placed there by the same folks who arranged Stonehenge.
The hike was supposed to be a mile and a half (various signs said it was a three-mile hike and we debated: Was that three miles in total, or three miles in, three miles out?). That’s usually an easy distance for me, but curiously it seemed was much longer, and at times we felt that old familiar feeling, that we might be lost. The trail tracked over ancient rock that showed no sign of a trail so had to be marked by cairns. Fires in recent years had made the landscape look uniform, and resulted in some areas where the shrubs had grown up just high enough so that you couldn’t see the surrounding landmarks. All of us felt we had hiked longer then the signs advertised no matter how you measured it — good thing we had someone with a rescue beacon!
Eventually we popped out of the undergrowth to a magnificent sight. Magnetic Rock. Thirty feet high, looking like it had been dropped there by a giant crane. Not only is it magnetic, it is also magnificent. We watched our compass go crazy, took pictures, walked around it and ate the berries that were in season. We walked back to the car, chattering in my case about religion, life and creation. How they intersect. It was a relaxed hike back. We knew the way and could encourage the hikers coming toward us who also seemed a bit lost and also felt it was a longer-than-advertised hike.
We felt settled, no longer uncertain. Hot and sweaty, we piled into the car for the drive back to the log cabin we had been granted for the week.
A nation that is lost
I keep reading — now that we are back to civilization and within cell phone range — that we are a nation divided. But I think we could more accurately be described as a nation that is lost. We have left the bearings that created a nation of greatness. Our first peoples, who knew how to live with the land; our founders, who dreamed big political frameworks; our immigrant parents, who crossed endless seas and left families to start something new. We have forgotten the trail map, dropped our rescue beacons, and crumbled inward into petty, ugly accusations. We have allowed the growth of destructive human forests that promote isolation, protectionism and the hoarding of money, land, education and power.
We aren’t divided; we are completely off the trail. Our country has been a compass for the world, inspiring great writers, politicians, artists and business leaders to come here, despite all odds to join us in our wayfinding. I fret that we cannot allow ourselves to stray too much. That the world will leave us behind, scale new heights and create innovation while we wander. Our country’s compass is as useless as one held right next to Magnetic Rock. Spinning, confused, lost, impotent. We wander and the world isn’t waiting for us to get back on the trail.
I struggle to stay focused on my own path, to do what I do better and with more passion. I look for the hikers ahead of me leading the way; they falter, I feel that old feeling, that stab of fear as I went the wrong way in the stream. This hike may truly be longer then we thought.
Kris Potter lives in South Minneapolis, where she teaches at a play-based preschool.
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