Navigating the World with a Terrible Sense of Direction

Getting lost teaches me mindfulness, even when I’m terrified


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We were an hour from the ranch, in the nearly 22,000-acre Lubrecht Experimental Forest in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, when I realized my horse and I were lost.

I spun in the saddle. The leather creaked as I eyed the trees around us, none of them distinct from the others. My first thought was of the mountain lion that had been lurking around these hills all winter and spring, and then of the wolf pack whose prints a neighbor had pointed out in the trail’s fresh mud. If Molly spooked and took off and I fell off way out here, I thoughtand then stopped myself. Focus.

Searching left and right for any sign of the path we took from the trail—broken branches? A hoofprint?—I scolded myself. I never went off the trail, and here it is, almost dusk, and we are lost.

“Where’s the trail, Moll?” I said out loud.

I’d been wooed by spring delights—birch saplings rich with new greens, the sighing pines swaying dozens of feet above them. It’s what one of my writing teachers called Montana’s “best season”—these two perfect weeks when the mountains are snowcapped, the valleys are green, and the deciduous trees are electric with new life; nothing’s been scorched yet by summer heat, revealing this land as the desert it is.

Molly was a chestnut saddlebred, prone to shying and taking off at a gallop and pinning her ears and snapping at other horses. We were doing what we both loved most—venturing out on our own, up into the hills.

All of my adventures include U-turns, switchbacks, zigzags, and circles. The world doesn’t have an obvious order to me, as it seems to for so many others.

It may seem foolish for someone with a really, really bad sense of direction to adventure solo. But, ironically, these solo adventures that required more risk soothed my near-constant anxiety. When it was just Molly and me out in the woods, I didn’t have to concentrate on small talk or worry about what someone else needed or what I needed to get done for class. My first call after unpacking my boxes and settling in to start grad school in Missoula, Montana, was to this ranch, listed in the phone book on Hole in the Wall Road, half an hour east; I was determined to fulfill the dream I’d conjured as a New England kid of riding at a ranch out west. In the forest with Molly, it was just like my childhood days spent riding my neighbor’s horse along pine tree trails that emptied into a cornfield. I could focus on how her ears moved; how her long red mane snarled where my hands rested; the motion of her shoulders as she stepped forward in a walk, a trot, a canter, my body jouncing and then rocking. I could listen to her steps and breath and the woods and birds. I was centered, mindful. I was so focused that even as I write this today, 15 years later and several states east, I can smell her sweat as she picked up to a canter and then a gallop; I can feel her coarse mane in my fingers; I can hear the wind up high in the pines. Molly and the ranch are still my home. I was happy there.

But that terrifying afternoon, I was lost. My heart raced as I tried to recall which direction we’d come from.

Getting lost is nothing new to me, but I try not to put myself in situations where I’ll be really stranded. A few years before I moved to Montana and made the ranch my second home, taking riding lessons and working, I’d traveled solo and worked in Australia (paralegal, Chiquita banana sorter, waitress), tucking away my earnings to travel around Southeast Asia. I was terrified of getting lost while traveling alone, but that fear was outweighed by the far more daunting prospects of Real Life back home. (A career! Adulthood!) I got lost all the time at home, too. I still do to this day. I was once two hours late for a date in my home city because I’d gotten turned around. Just last week, leaving a playground I’ve visited half a dozen times with my two-year-old son in Marquette, Michigan, where we’ve lived for almost six years, I turned right out of the parking lot, sending myself on a 15-minute adventure to a dead-end, where I realized: I should’ve turned left. I switched on my phone’s GPS, and the woman’s voice guided us the ten minutes home. “There’s the lady,” said my toddler from the back seat when he heard Siri direct us.

The truth is that going slowly and even getting lost—at least on the not-life-threatening occasions—make me pay attention differently.

All of my adventures include U-turns, switchbacks, zigzags, and circles. The world doesn’t have an obvious order to me, as it seems to for so many others. Most people seem to innately know which way is north and can quickly orient themselves in their landscapes. They envision highways and roads, creating internal atlases, so-called cognitive maps, that guide them steadily on their desired course. My body wasn’t born with that ability. I almost never know which direction I’m facing, and when I try to picture maps of the places where I have lived, the map seems to spin, directionless, like a searching compass. Before GPS, on cross-country trips, I relied on a paper atlas to get me back on track, like the time I took a three-hour detour while driving from New York to Montana and found myself in West Virginia. Out in the woods, on hiking trails that curve and diverge into multiple choices without any signs—as I often find here in northern Michigan—I quickly lose my sense of direction. The trail is an entity of its own, lopped off from the rest of the world with its tidy north/south/east/west, spinning on an axis of trees and rocks, as I walk farther and farther from what I know. I’ve since learned that many people with a condition that I have, called obsessive compulsive disorder, have a terrible sense of direction, or spatial awareness.

I was born in the 1970s. Dreamy, distracted, a worrier prone to losing everything (my homework, my backpack, my wallet). No one told me that I probably had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (yes), and that the thoughts and compulsions that tormented me were OCD, a treatable disorder, which likely affected my executive functioning and sense of direction. Since I was diagnosed and began treatment in 2010, there have been studies that focus on how OCD affects spatial awareness and working memory (how we recall everything our brains store for us). It’s not that I’m not trying hard enough, not paying attention, or stupid. I just don’t have this skill; a recent study shows that we can improve our sense of direction, so maybe there’s hope for me yet. All this new information helps me continuously recast my understanding of myself. Back in the 1980s, when I was about ten and my OCD took hold, there was no internet to research my symptoms. I locked them away tight, keeping them secret for years and mastering ways to hide the obsessions and compulsions. I always thought I was a flake, incompetent, a failure. When the OCD got really bad in high school, I determined that I was a monster with no future, and that I’d live as long as I could until I went insane. All those solo adventures abroad and into the woods—my attempts to run away from the OCD—fueled my wonder at the world and helped keep me alive.

Thankfully, with my diagnosis and access to skilled treatment providers, I was given a second chance at life.

My lostness does drive some people crazy. Once, when a friend offered to help me carry a heavy load of books down to my car in a convention center garage, we circled and meandered rows of silent vehicles for half an hour, our arms aching, before he declared, “You know, you should tell people you have no sense of direction when they offer to help you!”

I’d noted the aisle number before leaving, but I was in a rush and couldn’t remember it when we returned. Ever since, I’ve written down the aisle and level at every garage, turning back to look at where my car is positioned next to a pole or corner.

Likewise, on a new trail, I memorize landmarks as I go. At forks and crossroads, I turn around—nothing looks the same on return—making note of a crooked tree, a chipmunk’s hole. I sear the image into my memory before moving on. I’m cautious, slowly edging my way into new landscapes. One day last fall, I drove an hour down a dirt road to a new-to-me unmarked trail and found it covered in yellow birch leaves, camouflaging it with the rest of the woods. I ventured out and scuffed my heels at every big turn, thinking of Hansel and Gretel. I’ve considered whether these routines are OCD rituals that I do because I’m anxious, but I’ve proven many times that getting lost is a likelihood, not an imagined fear.

I’ve adapted. But the truth is that going slowly and even getting lost—at least on the not-life-threatening occasions—make me pay attention differently. I study more closely the fallen trees and moss-covered stumps; I stop to smell summer wildflowers and listen to a bird call. In college, I used to love going for drives and getting lost on purpose, venturing into a landscape I hardly knew, awed by hollows covered in kudzu and rolling North Carolina back roads. This intense focus is probably what helps calm me.

Out in the darkening Montana mountains with Molly that day, we climbed and circled and descended as I edged toward panic.

Finally, as the wind picked up and dusk blotted out the leaves’ brilliance, I remembered what the ranch manager, Deb, had told me over and over all year, a truth I’d always known but forgotten in my fear: Horses always know the way home.

I took my feet out of the stirrups and let the reins rest loosely on Molly’s neck.

She paused, not sure what I wanted from her. Her ears spun back, listening. I kept my body still.

“Take us home, Moll,” I said.

She turned, veering left, slowly and with certainty, reins swaying on her neck. My body relaxed again, shifting with hers, until, at last, there it was: that sweet dirt path back to the barn.

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