The Beautiful Art
of Getting Lost

“For it is not, after all, really a question about whether you can know the unknown, arrive in it, but how to go about looking for it, how to travel.”—Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Words Monique Besten

If the purpose of getting lost is to find yourself in a new place, if you don’t know what this new place is, if the way there might be what you are looking for and it doesn’t matter where you will end up because there is no wrong way to get there, then nothing is really lost.

I walked without knowing where I was before. I walked from Amsterdam to the South of France, from Barcelona to Paris, from my home in the Netherlands to a temporary artists’ settlement on a mountain close to Vienna. If a journey on foot is long—weeks or months—and you are in no hurry, it doesn’t matter if you go left or right. If you don’t have to be somewhere at a certain time, by the end of the day, by the falling of the night, you can go where your feet, your nose, your gut feeling tell you to go. Of course, that only works if you feel comfortable sleeping where you find yourself at the end of the day. In a forest, an abandoned building, at a stranger’s house. Or if you walk through the night. If you feel at home in the world.

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century philosopher and writer, wrote in his essay Walking:

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.”

I wanted to walk like this, in the spirit of Thoreau and with the wisdom of Solnit, in a way I walked before, but differently. Even when I walked for three months on end, I always knew where I was walking to. Even when I didn’t know where I would be by the end of the day, I always knew where I was going to be at the end of my journey. I didn’t know who I was going to be by the end of it though. Not the person I was at the beginning of my walk. Not somebody else. Just a little bit more me. With more knowledge about the world I was living in and the others I was sharing it with.

The city of Barcelona has been my home for the last six years. It is a city enclosed by hills and mountains on one side, and by the sea on the other. There are parts of it that I know well and there are parts where I have never been. A big part of “my” city is still a complete mystery to me, and I am always pleasantly surprised by how much mystery there is still in the places that are familiar—even the ones I pass through every day.

“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley.”—Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900

Walking is our natural speed, and it is one of the best ways to be. Walking is a way to come home, to connect with the world. There is no map with the best route for that. There is no use in leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, like Hansel and Gretel did in the Brothers Grimm fairytale, to help trace your way back. The stories you find on your path will bring you home: not necessarily back to the house you departed from, the stone walls under a rainproof roof, the room with your bed in it, but back to something deeper, more universal.

A walk is a line, in the way a story is a line, just like our life is a line. It gets entangled sometimes, stretched, pieces are tied together to stay connected. It is not so much the facts of our lives we remember but the stories that are connected to them.

What are the stories of my city? Who is out there? How does the small connect to the big? In order to find that out I went for a walk. I left the apartment with all the things I call mine, the artifacts of a life lived, and I stepped outside without knowing where I would end and when that would be. And to remember the stories I encountered, the people I met, I collected the lines I found on my way. Traces left on the sidewalk by others. Pieces of rope, rubber bands, ribbons—anything you can tie together. Every knot I made to connect them represented an event, a meeting, the things I saw, and the thoughts that popped up in my mind, embedded in the lines I found while my feet left steps that created an imaginary line. I rolled them up into a ball.

To prepare myself, I embroidered Thoreau’s words in the right pocket of my jacket so that whenever I doubted what I was doing, I could just put my hand there and feel his words.

I leave just before daybreak. What was broken, I wonder. Did I break something by stepping out at this time of day? I tread lightly; one automatically does. Not only because of the strange light, the absence of noise, the feeling of something that is about to begin, but also because of the energy of the others out there. Dog walkers rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, people coming home from their night shift, a sleep-deprived father carrying his newborn on his chest, early birds like me. People who like the sounds of the city before it wakes up.

Left, or right? Right. I switch off my thinking brain and let my senses guide me. To walk into the unknown is easier said than done when you walk along streets you’ve walked along many times before, when you kind of know what lies ahead. Not having a time limit makes it easier. You have to give your curiosity free rein. What is that little tower behind those buildings over there? What is at the end of that charming alley? Even if there is a dead end, it is not really a dead end. The way out is different from the way in. A different perspective, things have moved in the wind, the light has changed, somebody just steps out of a door, humming a song, he wishes me a good day.

Unexpectedly I bump into the Sagrada Familia, the cathedral that was designed by Gaudí over a century ago and is still unfinished. As always, I’m overwhelmed, now even more because I didn’t see it coming, exploring what was just in front of my feet. I never realized there is a beautiful pond surrounded by trees and bushes opposite the building. Reflected in the water the majestic building looks like a fata morgana, but somehow it also does when you look at the cathedral proper: an optical illusion, a fairy castle in the air. When I walk on, I see a little girl holding two flowers in front of her eyes as if she can see through them.

Different trees catch my eye. Old seeds from last year are dangling from branches or scattered on the sidewalk. Some float down, holding on to a little wing. Here and there a name can be read on a round, green stone plaque in the sidewalk. Celtis australis, Ligustrum lucidum, Platanus x acerifolia, Phoenix dactyliferia (European nettle tree, glossy privet, London plane, date palm). The networks of veins in some of the leaves on the ground look like maps. A map to where? I pick one up and wonder if I can use it.

A few days earlier, when I wrote a friend that I was going on a walk to get lost, he replied, “Beware of dragons!” I think about it when I find a stone bench in a park supported by a number of mythical creatures. The bench is constructed around a monument dedicated to Dr. Ramon Pla i Armengol, the man who once owned the park and the early 20th-century building at the heart of it, built to house his institute where he worked on a treatment for tuberculosis. The animals are winged lions: two small ones and two big ones. When I leave the park, I pass a shop named Dragon Volador, Flying Dragon. I am tempted to go inside and see what they are selling but I stay safely on the other side of the street.

Medieval maps depict dragons, sea monsters, and other mythological creatures to warn seafarers and travelers of potential dangers and to represent unexplored territories. On one of the oldest terrestrial globes, the phrase hic sunt dragones is engraved into its copper surface: here be dragons. It’s a variation on the phrase used by Roman cartographers to describe the unknown: Hic sunt leones, here be lions.

The road goes up, or more correctly: I go up, the road goes down but that is not where I am going. I put my hand in my right pocket and touch Thoreau’s words. My left hand holds the ball that was in my left pocket before, but which has now grown too big. The two pieces of string I found in the park are at the end of the rolled-up line. When I put in the last knot, I think of Ramon Pla i Armengol and his silent stone face surrounded by flying lions.

Beauty is in the strangest things. The old layers of a pink wall have become visible because the top layer has crumbled off. Different shades of darker pink and red flow into each other, surrounding two cloud-shaped areas where the gray concrete underneath the paint has appeared. It resembles a sunrise over the sea. The line between the wall and the street has suddenly become the horizon. I look for the street name: it says Carrer Abd el-Kader, the name of the 19th-century military leader and founder of modern Algeria, who was also known as a spiritual leader, anticolonial activist, and poet, and who believed in the possibility of different cultures living together in harmony. It is the Algerian coast that lies behind the horizon when you stand at the beach in Barcelona and watch the sunrise in the morning.

A little circus tent dominates the square where locals sit in the sun and drink beer. Children are playing, running around—maybe the elastic hairband I find was lost by one of them. A mural of an old woman holding a crane, climbing plants growing out of her eyes, curls around the building machine to bring it down. She smiles.

The streets are getting narrower. I find a sheet of paper on the sidewalk, blank, apart from the imprint of a shoe that stepped on it, like the signature of another walker. The sun is low, it must be the end of the afternoon. Should I continue? Should I return? I put my hand in my pocket and walk on.

Shopping streets, mannequin dolls look away, the sky has turned gray but the sun must still be there. On the wide boulevard the palm trees are back but outnumbered by the plane trees in their camouflage skin, which changes color when the old bark is shed in the middle of summer.

I walk and walk until there is a moment where I want to just continue walking straight ahead, follow this endless road leading out of the city, and forget about the obligations I have lined up in the days and weeks to come. I want to know what lies beyond what I can see, I want to wonder about where I will sleep, I want to wake up before a new day breaks in a place unknown to me, I want to have more time to think about how we lost the ability to let go, to not plan, to focus on finding instead of losing. I hesitate and walk on and feel the pleasant weight of the stories I collected in my left hand, flipping them over into my right.