It was indeed a long way. It was late, too—but since it was summer in Russia, the sun had only just set, and I still had a lavender 11 p.m. twilight to navigate by. I cried a little bit and felt sorry for myself as I walked, worried that the woman’s map would be wrong or that I would make a wrong turn. I wasn’t totally convinced I would make it back.
Then a small and sprightly young man bounded up to me, seemingly out of nowhere. He asked me, in English, if I knew where McDonald’s was. I did not.
“Are you from the cruise ship?” he asked. He was neither Russian nor American; his accent was one I couldn’t place.
Apparently, there was a cruise ship docked nearby, and with precious little time remaining before he had to return to it, he was on a quest to consume a Big Mac.
He asked me about myself, and when he heard I was lost, said he would walk with me for a while. I told him about the event I was covering in St. Petersburg; he told me about his cruise. I had already been shaken a bit out of my panic and self-pity just by his arrival, but he kept me calm until the illuminated Park Inn appeared on the horizon. A small distance away, the lights of a cruise ship glittered in the harbor.
In short order, the man spotted someone he knew from the ship, and ran off to join them. “Goodbye, Julie, I love you!” he shouted as he shot back into the night, a bullet in search of a Big Mac.
A few months later, I bought my first smartphone. I haven’t been lost since—not in the enormous, sweeping, helpless way I was then. I still get turned around occasionally, or confused about where something is, but my phone is always with me, and as long as there’s a signal, there’s a map that can clear up that confusion. My Russian misadventure feels like it might be the last time I’m going to be lost with no map at my disposal, utterly at the mercy of strangers.
I was curious if others felt the same way, so I set about collecting more of these moments—memories of the last times people felt really, truly lost. I suspected many of them would come from the pre-smartphone era—and some of them did—but while it’s easy to think that an interactive map in every pocket would make the experience of getting lost obsolete, it hasn’t. People still get lost, but the proliferation of digital maps has definitely changed the landscape, if you will, of when and how people lose their way.
All the stories in this piece were told to me in interviews, then edited and condensed for clarity.
Dan Krzykowski, a 34-year-old in Minneapolis who works in music publishing
The exact date is hard to pin down, but it would have been just before the proliferation of smartphones. 2007 or 2006. I had been invited to Duluth, Minnesota, to spend time with a friend’s family, and one of the things he pitched doing was snowmobiling—on groomed trails in the woods and on frozen lakes and things like that.
People treat it as sort of a barhopping thing, possibly not wisely. The same bars that are open in the summer for fishing and boating people—generally on a lake—they’ll stay open for packs of snowmobiles to come in and get a beer. So that was the plan.
I was on one of the snowmobiles by myself, and two friends of mine were on a sled together. This was pitch-black of night in the woods. I took a turn and missed how sharp it was and just went a few feet into the brush. The sled got stuck and they didn’t notice because they were on a very loud machine that just kept going.
After about 15 or 20 minutes I figured they’re not going to find me. So I got the snowmobile back on the trail. It was legitimately the first time I had ever been lost lost and it is also the last. It hasn’t happened since. I just decided to guess when I got to forks and try not to go in circles. I had a flip phone, and there was no service.
Eventually after about an hour, the woods opened up onto a lake. I saw a light on the other side, and figured this must be one of those bars. It just so happened that that is the one my friends were going to. I walked in, and I asked them if they had noticed I wasn’t behind them and my roommate said, “Yes, we figured you’d be fine.” And then he said to sit down and have a beer.
Pamela Kingfisher, 66, a consultant near Tahlequah, Oklahoma
It was about 2002, with my husband, in Tennessee. We were exploring Cherokee heritage sites and had gone to the old town of Chota, just northeast of Chattanooga. It’s right at the edge of the mountains. We prayed and laid down tobacco, did the whole thing. Then we got in the car and thought, “Let’s go this other way.” We think this map—paper map, back in the day, we didn’t have a cell phone either—shows that this hill goes up over and we’ll go to this other old Cherokee town. So we take a left instead of a right and end up going up this hill. There’s no signage. We saw no houses, no people, no cars, and it was like the forest just kept moving in on us. The roads got skinnier, the trees were hanging over and touching.
I’ve been in every state, 72 Indian reservations, and I don’t get scared very often. But it just got stranger and more like a fairy tale coming into animation or something. I don’t think we ever reached the top of that mountain, it got steeper and skinnier and scarier. It felt like the land and the roads were taking over and we were just kind of coasting along and maybe shouldn’t be there. We finally just stopped and kept looking at the map, and looking at each other. We just turned around and left like our pants were on fire. It was too scary.
There were multiple stages of the digital-map takeover. MapQuest launched in 1996 as a web service, and briefly enjoyed status as a verb—“I’m going to MapQuest directions to the party”—in the era when people would look up directions at home, print them out, and take them on their journey.