It was one of those golden fall days in Wisconsin. ©John T. Andrews

“I’ll never, ever go on a field trip again,” wailed the little boy ahead of me. It was in the afternoon on one of those golden fall days in Wisconsin when the trees splash brilliant oranges and yellows over the landscape. My brother and I had decided to hike one of the bluff trails at Devil’s Lake State Park, often referred to as the Midwest’s “Yellowstone.” The park’s bluffs are part of the 1.6-billion-year-old Baraboo Range, making them some of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America.

On this weekday, the two of us were often alone on the trail; but about 20 minutes ago, we had bumped into a group of schoolchildren. We quickly passed them. Now, this little boy, accompanied by a woman who was probably a parent or chaperone, appeared on the path in front of us, separated from the larger group far behind us.

The woman was looking about nervously, as the boy (who was probably 10 or 12 years of age) kept repeating his vow over and over again. When she spotted us coming up from behind, she turned to ask us for directions to the parking lot. Although my brother and I had never been on this trail before, we assured her that if she just stuck to the beaten path, it would loop around and get them back to their starting point.

The trail traversed rock ledges, where any trodden route disappeared. ©John T. Andrews

The trail did traverse some rock ledges and stone jumbles where any trodden route disappeared, so I could understand their confusion and wandering off course. Once off the rocks and back down from the ledges, however, a quick look around usually brought you back to the cut trail. I’m sure for a little boy, though, sensing that the one adult he’s with is lost, imagination runs wild. He must have felt that he was in the deepest, darkest woods in the gravest of danger and that he just might perish there.

What was harder for me to understand was how he proposed to deal with the situation. Instead of seeing this as a great adventure, he was determined to play it safe for the rest of his life.

Great expectations

I wonder if our tolerance for uncertainty is lower than it used to be, before GPS units, Google maps and iPhone apps made us believe that we should always know exactly where we are and how long it will take us to get from here to someplace else. It seems to me that getting lost used to be part and parcel of going to a new area. It’s how the old cliché of men not asking for directions (while women have no qualms about it!) got started. Clichés are born because certain things frequently happen. People just got lost—a lot.


The boy must have felt that he was in the deepest, darkest woods.

No, I’m not going to poetically rhapsodize here about the virtues of being open to new adventures and transformative experiences by getting lost. Sometimes, people do stupid things, such as taking risks they aren’t equipped to handle, and end up making others pay for their errors. But the other extreme can be just as dangerous, to my mind, in thinking that we should never, ever lose our way; that we are too important or too busy to have the time to get lost; that we are too technologically savvy to allow for the possibility that we might still be fallible.

Mazes: the fear and the fun

It’s interesting that while some say the term for the fear of getting lost is mazeophobia, a “maze” conjures up a game, the kind that used to be in magazines like Highlights for Children, where you took a pen and tried to find your way out of a printed labyrinth without crossing any of the lines. Or like the cornfield mazes farmers build here in Wisconsin in the fall. You enter a big puzzle cut into the standing cornstalks and attempt to find the exit without using the provided map. It proves that getting lost can be fun, that people will actually pay for the experience and “adventures” are sometimes created with the simplest of means.

It’s been more than four months now, but walking behind that little boy that day still haunts me. I keep going back to it because I realize I wanted to tell him not to give up on further expeditions afield. I wanted to tell him about all the great places he would see and the marvels he would encounter if he just stuck with it. I wanted to tell him he should go on other field trips. I wanted to tell him not to worry because he was on a true adventure.

I wanted to, but I didn’t. I guess that’s where I wandered off course.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,