Lost. Even hearing the word seems to affect us. Have you ever been lost in a dangerous situation? Being lost is a matter of either not knowing where you are or not knowing where you’re headed. It may be a more common experience than we realize.

I’ve been lost in the woods before. A friend and I were backpacking in the Smokies. We had started off that morning in a cloud, which is not uncommon—they are called the Smokies for a reason, after all. We were heading towards a trail neither of us taken before. We somehow managed to start down the ridge before we reached the actual trail. In the mist it was an understandable mistake; we couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. It did not take long before we realized we had lost the trail. We stopped and carefully examined our surroundings. We backtracked the way we had come. We knew that the trail had to be above us and that we would connect again shortly. That was exactly what happened. A little further up, we found the sign and the actual junction for the trail that would lead us down to our campsite for the night. We were no longer lost and all was well.

For us, this was not an especially harrowing or dangerous situation. We were both experienced hikers, and we knew what to do when we realized our circumstances. We had both seen many miles of trails, so when we were all the way off-trail, it was a quick check that got us back on track.

We were fortunate. It does not always go well for those who get themselves into such predicaments. I can still remember as a youngster a situation when a boy about my age had gotten separated from his parents very near that same spot where we would go wrong years later. Hundreds of people spent untold hours searching and tracking, but it was as if he vanished. He was never found and what happened remains a mystery. I remember being anxious about his situation, but it never deterred me from heading back out hiking when the chance presented itself.

One can easily get lost in the terrain I usually hike. It has lots of ups and downs and one cove can look just exactly like another. The trees make it difficult to locate landmarks by which one might navigate. There are streams and creeks and rivers that sometimes swell and become dangerous. There are areas that are called ‘hells’ because the growth is so thick that you could get into one and never make your way out. It’s wise to stay on the trails.

It’s also wise to know which trail you’re on. You would think this wouldn’t be too difficult, but you might be surprised. On a recent over-nighter I was nearing the end of my trek, when I came upon an elderly couple who were taking pictures of wildflowers. We struck up a conversation. It did not take long before they asked what trail they were on. I was a bit shocked, truly. They had already passed the trail they mentioned. They were not sure what trail they were going to take to get back to their starting point. I told them where they were, and some directions to get back to the trail they thought they wanted. At this point the woman informed me that she is type-1 diabetic and that she is not sure she can hike that far. I told them the quickest way to retreat in the shortest distance. I went down the trail a bit and then waited at the trail junction where they were going to decide which way to go. The wrong trail, a medical condition, getting late in the day—this had all the makings of a serious mess. This was ‘lost’ of the ‘not knowing where you are’ variety.

And as I was waiting on those folks to arrive, another couple of guys walked up—a father and son team. Dad was looking dashing in his hiking gear—he even had a satellite beacon on his pack strap—an expensive piece of gear that I have not yet felt the need for. Dad asked me if any of these trailed looped. Yes, I told him that one of them looped back to make a hike of about five miles. He asked about the other options as well. I told him that one was a somewhat strenuous out-and-back hike; the other was a trail that went on for miles towards another trailhead. Dad turned to his son and asked him if he thought he could do five miles; the son felt he could. And off they went, hopefully to enjoy their hike.

What gave me cause for concern was that they had left no itinerary with anyone back at the car or campground or hotel. They did not have a definite plan for where they were going to be walking. They did not know the terrain or conditions. They did not know the names of the trails they would be on. They had the best of intentions, but they were sorely lacking information. Again, here’s a situation that could go badly in short order. It might be that they would have to use their satellite beacon—indeed, the odds were greater given their lack of preparation for what they were doing. This was ‘lost’ in the sense of ‘not knowing where you’re going.’

People take journeys with an intention in mind. It’s a good thing to walk in the woods; it’s not only refreshing physically, but it is beneficial emotionally and spiritually as well. Taking time to get into natural surroundings has all kinds of advantages.

But intention without information can lead to being lost in short order. It happens to folks who are hiking and it happens to people who are seeking spiritually as well. An experienced guide makes a difference in both outlook and outcome. I prepare for hiking; I know my route, the weather, my gear, the map, and myself. I cannot imagine going into the wilds without preparation, a plan, and making sure that someone else knows that plan as well. I have been lost, but I also know what to do when that happens.

The same holds true for the spiritual trek. There are moments and events that leave us disoriented. We may ask ourselves how we got ‘here’—wherever that may be. We do not know ‘where’ we are because we have wandered into unplanned circumstances. It is good to ask for directions from someone who has made the journey before us. I have been able to help numerous people both on the trail and in life having spent a lot of time trekking.

There are also moments when we may not be sure where we are headed. We are unsure of the path that lies before us; it may not be a matter of our choice but of things that are handed to us. We may not be able to see the other end of the trip because of how many obstacles lay before us. Again, it is helpful to find others who have walked that path and ask their wisdom and counsel.

If you hike long enough or you live long enough, you will surely find moments in which you are ‘lost.’ Your intentions may need correction. Your information may need adjustments. Look for signposts along the way; observe your surroundings and situations carefully; ask a trusted guide who has been this way before. We often need reminders of where we are and where we’re headed to keep moving.

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