Howard Bump, a wiry fellow of about 50 and a former member of the Flying Tigers whose rag-tag airforce was based in China during World War II, was one of my mentors during a summer job I once had in the Oregon woods. I was 19 in 1959 and dumber than a box of rocks when it came to the ways of the forest which butted up against the Pacific Ocean and provided profits for the lumbering company I was working for.
Howard was a good teacher -- tough and understanding by turns as I learned a little about swinging a machete or ax and creating property lines in a terrain that was often up-hill-and-down-dale ... a terrain that could be unforgiving and secretive. "Don't expect anyone to help you if you get hurt out here," the older guys would taunt people like me. Each of us was required to carry a small first-aid kit that included ammonia ampules to help awaken those who, for one reason or another, might have been knocked out. This was not a job for sissies or for those who overlooked the dangers that were very real. The older guys may have made light of those dangers, but their jokes and taunts were based on real possibilities.
And one day, as our three- or four-man crew was cutting rough trails that the surveyor might later follow with more precision, we came upon the skeleton of a single-engine plane. Much of the fuselage covering had long since rotted away, but the skeleton remained. There were no human remains. And it may have been Howard who told me that the plane had crashed in the woods several years ago. People knew the crash had occurred, but "no one found it for two and a half years." That's how dense and filled with hiding places the terrain was.That's a lesson any of us might remember if we found ourselves lost.
There were many suggestions about what to do if we got lost. But the one that stuck with me was this: People often think that if they can see the sun, they can plot a useful course to safety. But in Oregon, many of the days were overcast -- a pall of barely-varying grey from horizon to horizon. Looking up into such a sky might provide bright spots that seemed to indicate where the sun was, but too often such bright spots were highly unreliable and indicate only where the grey cloud cover was less dense. Thus, a bright spot might appear in the North when the sun was actually in the East. The sun was untrustworthy if you got lost.
What was trustworthy? "Walk downhill," Howard said firmly. "Just walk downhill. Eventually, if you follow a stream or the downhill lay of the land, you will come to the ocean." Beaches in that part of Oregon invariably led to communities that made money from tourists who liked to swim or fish.
Lost. Which one of us has not felt that sense of anxiety that arises when the direction is unclear and yet the impetus to get somewhere is strong. Which one of us has not searched for the light that would point the way, only to become worse entangled in a universe that had no direction or solace? What do you do when the light that promises proves again and again to be a false prophet?
Walk downhill. Just walk downhill. Or, put another way, just walk. Never mind the light and darkness, the fear or insecurity ... just walk and keep on walking. What other choice is there? And where there is no other choice, you might as well enjoy the choice you make. No need to worry that no one will find you for two and a half years.
Just walk. Even if the safety and relief of the ocean never appears, still, this step, and this one, and this one are safe and sure and cannot be classified as 'lost.' Sure, sometimes it's scarier than shit ... but what other choice is there? The light is everywhere and it is the same. Let the light worry about itself. You have bigger fish to fry.
Just walk. And never stop.