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One way to find treasure: Get lost

Times Staff Writer

Somewhere between Laughlin, Nev., and Needles, Calif., with darkness all around me, I got as lost as a bat at high noon. That rarely happens to me, which is why the memory still rattles me.

I had driven across Mojave National Preserve and emerged at dusk around Searchlight, Nev., which I soon left behind in the thickening blackness of the desert as I headed for the Avi Resort & Casino on the Colorado River. The map I was using was downloaded from the Avi’s Web site. I also had a good road atlas but ignored it, figuring that if the Avi didn’t know where it was, who did? Besides, to me, a map -- any map -- is like an elementary school teacher: the indisputable voice of authority.

It showed a right-hand turnoff, west across the river to the Avi. That didn’t make sense, because the Avi is on the west side of the river. But where exactly was the Colorado River?

When I reached Interstate 40, I pulled off and looked again at the map. I knew in my heart I should go toward Needles, but I was tired and hungry and the map told me otherwise. So I continued on for about 30 miles into California.

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Finally I remembered something I read somewhere: The more lost you are, the more you have invested in staying lost. You may know you’re on the wrong track, but instead of stopping and making a correction, you persist. Remembering that was like switching on a searchlight in my brain. When the next exit came up, I turned around and reached the Avi about an hour later.

I complained about the map’s inaccuracy at the front desk. But later, when I opened my road atlas upstairs in my room, I discovered the map wasn’t to blame; it was my interpretation of it. I went to bed feeling reassured that the world still made sense as long as a lost traveler remembered to stop, think and turn around.

That reminded me of other occasions when I got lost and what I had learned from those instances. And why, I wondered, should the possibility of going astray make me feel so afraid? More often than not, losing my way helped me find things I would never have seen if I hadn’t become disoriented.

It is a scary prospect in foreign countries where you can’t speak the language or read signs, which was my plight on a visit to Sofia, Bulgaria. On the maps in my guidebook, streets were marked in English, but on the ground the signs were in Cyrillic, which was indecipherable to me.

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When I arrived in Sofia after an overnight flight from New York, I was tired, jet-lagged and dull-witted. I had studied the map and knew there was a cheap public bus from the airport to the city center, so I took that instead of putting myself in the hands of one of the hustler taxi drivers my guidebook warned me about. I sat with my map in my lap as the bus rumbled along, identifying landmarks -- the ring road, a public park with a Soviet-era monument and a bridge over a river, where I got off. It was Kafkaesque, but by matching on-the-ground landmarks to the ones on my map, I found my way to the tourist information office.

On the other hand, diligent map reading and landmark recognition didn’t save me on a similarly discombobulating bus ride from the Beijing airport to the city center. The bus driver didn’t speak English, but I figured I would recognize and get off at the big hotel just east of the Forbidden City, marked on my map. There are lots of big hotels in central Beijing, and I, of course, disembarked at the wrong one. Walking north, I couldn’t understand why none of the landmarks on my map was where it should be. I started to panic, then saw a cab and hailed it. I had the name of my hotel written out in Chinese, but even the cabdriver had trouble finding it.

Now I spring for a taxi from the airport in an unfamiliar city, though I still sit with my map in my lap, looking for landmarks. It helps get me oriented and, I hope, dissuades dishonest drivers from leading me astray.

That happened to me once in New Delhi, where a pedicab took me to the wrong hotel, saying the one where I had reservations was full. I knew he was lying and started to shriek as I jumped out of the rickety conveyance.

From then on in India, I did everything I could not to look like a confused, well-to-do tourist. I dressed down and folded my map to the appropriate section before leaving my hotel so I wouldn’t have to wrestle with it in the street. When I needed to consult it, I ducked into a doorway to avoid calling attention to myself.

There’s really nothing wrong with getting lost, though. The fear I attach to it is more about a loss of control. But it’s hard to enjoy yourself and make discoveries that aren’t in guidebooks if you travel with too tight a hold on the wheel. Besides, experience has shown me that most of the people I encounter mean me good, not harm, so I’ve learned how to say “Where is?” in a variety of languages and am never too shy to ask for directions.

I had to do that a lot on a recent walking tour along the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy. On a path cleaving the rock cliffs above Positano, I went terribly astray, climbing steep crumbling staircases to nowhere and thrashing through vineyards until I came to a house where a man was working on the roof. I asked how to find my way. I speak little Italian, but I somehow knew he said, “I’m worried about you.” He walked me down the side of the mountain and put me on the right path even though it meant a 15-minute climb back up for him.

The ability to travel without fear -- and, occasionally, to get lost fruitfully -- has to do with trusting your instincts, map skills and the goodness of people.

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I always know I’ll end up right somehow. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t go anywhere.


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