Why A Field Guide to Getting Lost is the book you need in your life right now

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit is a series of meditations on what it means to be lost. Through a combination of her stunning writing, unreal bank of quotes from writers, philosophers and painters and stories about obscure historical figures, she writes a thoughtful and beautiful series of essays on our continuous fascination and fear of stepping into the unknown.

These essays are meandering, switching from rambling (in a good way) stories from history – how painters have recreated the horizon through the centuries, white settlers adopted into native American tribes, an artist determined to capture an image of the perfect leap – and anecdotes from Solnit’s life – love affairs with strange desert-dwelling men, the loss of her friend to a heroin overdose, her missing great-grandmother (I also have a vanished great-great-grandmother, so I particularly enjoyed this one).

Solnit’s writing has to be experienced. So, I figured, rather than a review I’d select a few choice quotes that best show why A Field Guide to Getting Lost is such a vital read. And not just because Solnit is probably one of the best writers alive today.

(She is though)

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“To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away… to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.”

“And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as a birth right an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.”

“But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is already loss.”

“A happy love is a single story, a disintegrating one is two or more competing, conflicting versions, and a disintegrated one lies at your feet like a shattered mirror, each shard reflecting a different story, that it was terrible, if only this had, if only that hadn’t. The stories don’t fit back together, and it’s the end of stories, those devices we carry like shells and shields and blinkers and occasionally maps and compasses.”

“When someone doesn’t show up, the people who wait sometimes tell stories about what might have happened and come to half believe the desertion, the abduction, the accident. Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t – and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.”

“Movies are made out of darkness as well as light; it is the surpassingly brief intervals of darkness between each luminous still image that make it possible to assemble the many images into one moving picture. Without the darkness, there would only be a blur.”

“That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

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Wild

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State – and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humour, Wild powerfully captures to terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

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Shout out to second hand books!

I went to see the movie adaptation of Wild by myself one morning when I was still a student who had time for that sort of thing. The movie starts with Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) lowering herself to sit on the edge of a mountain, peeling off her shoes and socks and ripping out a bloody and blackened toe nail. I reacted with a noise along to lines of AAAARRRGGGUUUGH. My fellow cinema-goers looked at me with disgust.

I looked forward to this scene in the book with a strange, excited sort of anticipation. What I didn’t know from the movie is that Cheryl Strayed left the PCT with less than half of her toe nails remaining.

But she kept on going anyway. This may be the least of what is awesome about Cheryl Strayed.

(which is impressive)

Guys, this book did things to me.

I like to think that some part of me only put off reading it the two years following my infatuation with the movie because I knew there would come a time when I, like… needed it.

If you’re one of those people who spends a lot of their life hoping that something is going to happen – but remain unsure of what that something should be, and are, as a result left feeling generally speaking too paralyzed by confusion to go looking for it (hoping that’s not just me?) – then this book is for you.

Don’t get me wrong. It does not make for easy reading. Before her hike, Cheryl’s life has turned into a black hole of grief, heartbreak and drug use. After her mother’s sudden and devastating death from an impossibly fast spreading cancer, her family falls to pieces. Her siblings scatter and the stepfather she has always adored slowly fades from her life. All of this leaves Cheryl with an uncontrollable desire to burn what remains of her life to the ground. She got married very young – a couple of years before her mother’s death – and by a couple of years after, she and her now ex are signing their divorce papers and getting tattoos to remember each other by.

Cheryl weaves the narrative of her life in and out of the present challenges of her days trekking the PCT. Every scene Cheryl describes – from the PCT to her tragic history – totally captivated me. The stories from her past are devastating and ever-present, yet somewhat overwhelmed by the daily challenges that arise for a person who decides to hike a thousand miles without having a clue what they’re actually doing. There was one time she nearly ran out of water and died because of a bit of bad planning.

While there was much about Cheryl’s life that I couldn’t relate to – I’m lucky, family-wise and way too anxious about death to experiment with heroin – the essence of the book, the feeling of being lost and constantly overwhelmed by that feeling, is one I think most of us have experienced at some point.*

*Brief side note – have most of us experienced this? The other day I had a conversation with a co-worker where I told her that pretty much every day I wake up with a panicked voice in my head screaming WHATNEXT?AMIWASTINGMYLIFE?AGAGAGAGAGHHH! at me. I kind of assumed this was the norm, so was pretty surprised when she gave me the side eye and told me that had never happened to her.

Anyway.

Ultimately it seemed like what Cheryl discovered on the trail was a life where she couldn’t deny the present. The seemingly endless path in front of her and the excruciating pain in her feet were impossible to ignore. Even when it feels like the walls are built of the past and the road the future, neither of them are where we actually live.

Cheryl puts it better:

‘It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was…. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands any more. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

How wild it was, to let it be.’