10/24/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Getting Lost

Flickr: Blake Handley

My fondest memories of my teenaged driving years are filled with run-of-the-mill misadventures: speeding tickets and inadvisable numbers of passengers and minor collisions that I told myself just "added character" to the Pepto-Bismol-pink VW Bug I called Alice. I regularly ran her gas tank to empty; I had to enlist the help of strangers to bounce her out of parking stalls or to give her push starts; and I had to manage minor mechanical crises, like the one involving non-functional windshield wipers during a midnight solo drive to Tijuana in a downpour.

When I replay those years in my mind, though, what I can't come up with is a memory of ever being lost.

This absence is significant because it stands in stark contrast to my experience as an adult driver, in which I often find myself driving around in circles, sometimes even in relatively familiar neighborhoods!

My getting lost is predictable enough now that my children advise their friends to expect delays, even when I've got the print out from Google maps in hand, and a GPS app or two at the ready on my iPhone for backup. I joke that I'm taking the "scenic route," but most of the time I just find myself frustrated by mistaking east for west or for needing to take a wrong-way turn onto a one-way street.

Was my hardly-used 1984 Thomas Guide really so much better than today's technology at getting me where I wanted to go?

I doubt it.

Instead, I now think the reason I can't remember ever feeling lost as a young driver was because I generally rejected directions then; I was learning my way instead of putting myself in the position to be told I had missed my turn. I think I was probably lost all the time -- but I was better at just driving around, feeling like I was heading somewhere, and trusting that I'd end up in the right place.

I was better at what W.S. Merwin's poem "Neither Here Nor There" describes (in reference to airports, but I'm usurping the image) in this week's The New Yorker:

"sometimes you may even feel happy
to be that far on your way
to somewhere"

Now, when I'm "lost," what I really am is mad that I know exactly where I am -- and that it's not where the map told me to be.

Then, I focused less on getting the route right, and more on the pleasure of driving and the promise of eventual arrival. I knew, as my friend Dan Eldon liked to remind me, that being lost is pretty much the same as exploring -- and that exploring is the whole point.

My teen self can keep paying high insurance premiums and scrounging through couch cushions for gas money... but her attitude toward being directionally-challenged is the one thing I want to reclaim from those years without hand-held satellite assistance.

I guess I'd trade my hybrid SUV for another road trip with lovely pink Alice, too.

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