When a man fixes up his pack and strikes out alone into strange woods, just for a little adventure, not caring where he may come out, he may be lost all the time, in one sense, but in a better sense he is at home all the time. Not for a moment does he worry about the future; he is exploring new territory —that is all.
But if one sets out for a certain destination, expecting to reach it by a given time, and loses the trail, he will be anxious at once, and the longer this continues, the more it will get on his nerves. Still we would hardly call him lost, so long as he retains a good idea of the general direction in which he should travel.
A man is really lost when, suddenly (it is always suddenly), there comes to him the thudding consciousness that he cannot tell, to save his life, whether he should go north, east, south or west. This is an unpleasant plight to be in, at any time; the first time that it is experienced the outlook will seem actually desperate.
Instantly the unfortunate man is overwhelmed by a sense of utter isolation, as though leagues and leagues of savage forest surrounded him on all sides, through which he must wander aimlessly, hopelessly, until he drops from exhaustion and starvation. Nervously he consults his compass, only to realize that it is of no more service to him now than a brass button. He starts to retrace his steps, but no sign of footprint can he detect. He is seized with a panic of fear, as irrational but quite as urgent as that which swoops upon a belated urchin when he is passing a country graveyard at night. It will take a mighty effort of will to rein himself in and check a headlong stampede.
In such predicament as this, a man is really in serious peril. The danger is not from the wilderness, which, pitiless niggard though it be to the weak-minded or disabled, can yet be forced to yield food and shelter to him who is able-bodied and who keeps his wits about him. No: the man's danger is from himself.
I have heard old woodsmen say that there is no use in offering advice to novices about what they should do if they get lost, because a lost man is an insane man, anyway, and will remember nothing that has been told him. Certainly it is true that if a man in such a strait permits panic to conquer him, he is likely either to perish or to come out of the woods a gibbering lunatic. There have been many such cases. But it is not true that they are the rule. Thousands of wayfarers have been lost for a day, two days, or longer, without losing their self-command. And there really is no valid excuse for an able-bodied person going out of his head from being bewildered in the big woods so long as he has a gun and ammunition, or even a few dry matches and a jackknife. The first time I was lost, I was rattled and shook all over. Something seemed to tell me that camp lay in a certain direction, and I felt the same impulse to rush madly toward it that one feels to dash for the door when there is a cry of "fire!" in a theater. But I did remember what old Barnes had told me: "If you get lost, sit down\—sit down and give yourself half an hour to think it over." I sat down, and for five minutes could not think of anything, except cold, and rain, and hunger. Then I got to drawing diagrams on the ground. Making no headway at this, I began considering how to pass the night if I remained just where I was.
This cleared my mind, robbed the woods of their spooks, and presently I was myself again. Then the actual situation flashed upon me. I saw just how I had got into this scrape, and knew that if I made a circuit of 200 yards radius I would strike the trail. Before this it had seemed at least two miles away. Well, I found it, all right. Had I listened to the demon of flight, in the first place, I would have plunged into one of the worst canebrakes in all Arkansas, and might have struggled there till I died— all writhin a mile and a half of my own camp.
I have been lost several times: in canebrakes, in flat woods of the overflow country, in the laurel, in fog, above the clouds (in the sense that I did not know on which side to descend from an aiguille or bare pinnacle of rock), and in caverns. The cave experiences were hair-raising, but the others were Dnly incidents to chuckle over in retrospect, although I have scorched the back of more than one coat from lying too near a bivouac fire. A bad record, you will say, for one who assumes to tell others how to keep from getting lost! Well, maybe so; but the fact that I am still on deck may be some excuse for offering a little counsel as to what to do if you should get lost.
I do not think that one can get the best of wild life if he does not often "go it alone." Men who are interested in the guiding business may say otherwise. If one does go it alone, he may as well take it for granted that, sooner or later, he will get lost and have to stay out over night, or for several nights, alone. There is no man, white or red, who is not liable to lose his bearings in strange woods if he is careless. If an Indian is seldom at fault as to his course it is because he pays close attention to business; he does not lose himself in reverie, nor is his mind ever so concentrated on an object that he fails to notice irregular or uncommon things along the way. And yet, even Indians and white frontiersmen sometimes get lost.
I have been with a first-class woodsman when he got mixed up on his own home hunting-ground—an overflow from the Mississippi, flooding sixty miles inland, had swept away old landmarks, replaced them with new ones, and changed the appearance of the country; then, subsiding, it had even altered the drainage of the land. At such a time the water of a tributary may actually run upstream. In fog or snowstorm anybody can get lost. You may take a professional guide from New Brunswick, let us say, or from Florida—it matters not where—place him in a new country where outlooks are few, and where the vegetation, the rocks and soil, and the general features of the country, are strange to him, and, if he does not get lost, it will be because he thinks more about avoiding it than he does about anything else.