There are times when wandering around without a set plan can be a wonderful way to travel. In fact, this is the way that I usually take trips, just sort of following my nose and enjoying the almost innumerable surprises that present themselves along the way. In a sense, this is a way of getting lost on purpose, but in a way that is relaxing and independent, being open to possibilities, improvising as one goes along, with one decision leading inexorably to the next one, but in a way that is surprising, and, dare I say it, even fun, at least most of the time.

I have traveled to England, Scotland, Wales, France, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, St. Lucia, and Japan. I have been in all but two of the contiguous lower 48 states of the USA, Washington and Oregon.

Last year my wife and I drove from New Jersey to Florida and back. We visited the low country of South Carolina, the sea islands of Georgia, and the coastal wetlands of northern Florida. Two years ago we drove from New Jersey to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, and then drove west, across Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, up into Colorado and across Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains and down into Durango. We then crossed over into southern Utah, and then drove north through Utah and back across the Rockies into Colorado, then across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, before returning home to New Jersey.

The year before that we traveled to Las Vegas, and took side trips to the Grand Canyon and the red rock country of Sedona, Arizona. We have been to see the wild horses on Chincoteague and Assateague islands twice, driven to Niagara Falls and Cape May, and walked the streets of Manhattan too many times to count.

I could go on, but my main point, the thing that that I am trying to emphasize here, is that I have traveled around some, and continue to do so. A few months from the time I am writing this, I am going to be taking a two-week trip to Japan, flying into Tokyo and then traveling around the country with my wife, who is Japanese. We will visit her family in Kofu, in Yamanashi Prefecture, which is close to Mount Fuji. Last year when we visited Japan we traveled to Toyama, Kanazawa, Nagano, Kofu, Kyoto, Nara, and Tokyo.

But for all of my traveling, for all of this wandering around, both in the USA and in other countries around the world, nothing prepared me for New Jersey. I have gotten lost more times in New Jersey, the state where I work and live, than anywhere else I have traveled.

I really only started getting lost after I moved to New Jersey. I can more or less find my way around in rural Sussex County, where I live, and which is located in the northernmost part of the state, up with the cows and deer and black bears, but other than that I have to follow very clearly prescribed routes, or I get into trouble.

In New Jersey, if I don’t stay exactly on roads I know, and follow routes that I have already traveled, I tend to get lost immediately, and after that happens, as they say in Jersey and New York City, fuhgeddaboudit. I stay lost.

In large parts of New Jersey, or at least in the parts within an hour’s drive of Manhattan, there are no breaks between towns, and the roads are usually poorly marked. Time and time again I have seen a sign on the interstate indicating my destination, only to realize, too late, that I had no chance of crossing lanes in traffic in time to get to the exit where I needed to go.

There was one time that I got lost that was particularly memorable. I had just picked up my mother at Newark International airport. I then got lost almost as soon as we got on the highway, in the middle of what was rush hour, New York City, interstate traffic. This is some of the most congested, fast paced, futuristic, dystopian, overpopulated, driving machine overload that one can find anywhere on the planet, and it is combined with a kind of overall energy concentration of the highest magnitude—New York City—which exacerbates, at least psychologically, all of the ambient techno roar of the highways surrounding Manhattan.

In other words, picture this. Imagine a place that is the USA center of finance, theatre, art, literature, broadcasting, architecture, food, and publishing, which by extension makes it at least one of the centers for all of these things in the whole world, and then package all of that in a mind-boggling hive rise of early twentieth century art deco skyscrapers that rise toward the clouds with silver curves and points and filigrees, and mid to late twentieth century Bauhaus glass edifice dominos that line the avenues like towering icebergs. Then consider that all of this is rising above layers and layers of underground tunnels filled with rattling trains zooming under the roar of the city at all hours of the day and night.

This might begin to give you an idea of the enormous size and intensity of Manhattan, and of the almost mystical power that radiates and burns and throbs and hums on this island, and which then sends intense, brain-churning psychic vectors out to any hapless souls who might find themselves lost on its roiling streets and surrounding roaring highways filled with rocketing cars and trucks at rush hour.

This one wrong turn led me inexorably to downtown Jersey City, which was a place I didn’t know at all, and along with all of the big city traffic, it seemed hostile, somehow, in ways that are hard, in retrospect, to explain, but one thing was clear. This was a place I absolutely did not want to be, especially when I was lost and driving with an aged mother who was not used to this kind of adrenaline charged thrill ride through what many Americans would consider the inner city.

Plus, in addition to all of this, I was having coronary bypass surgery at 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

I had suffered a heart attack three months previous to this, sitting at my desk at the university where I teach. I had then spent a few days in the intensive care ward, before I went back in the hospital a couple of weeks later for an overnight stay, to have a couple of arterial stents put in.

Now, I was going to have my chest cracked open the next morning, and, in the meantime, I was stuck wandering the streets of Jersey City and Secaucus, with my 83 year old mother trying to be as patient and supportive as she could be, in spite of my anxiety provoking inability to simply drive from the airport to the hotel.

There are, however, limits to anyone’s tolerance of stressful situations.

We passed by our check-in time at the hotel as I was driving around sketchy streets trying to find my way. Plus it was getting later in the evening and we were going to have to get up at 4:00 a.m., at the hotel, because we had to be at the hospital by 5:00 a.m., to prep for my 7:00 a.m. surgery.

But for the moment, I could not find my way out of the mess of greater NYC rush hour traffic.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity spent in one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno, I found my way back to the airport, got turned around, and managed to take the right highway to the hotel. We got checked in without a problem, and then got up on time the next morning, which should have been fine.

Except for one thing. I got lost again on the way to the hospital.

That’s right. With my elderly mother in my SUV, I somehow got lost, again, heading to the hospital at 4:00 a.m. for my coronary bypass surgery.

I was wandering around the dark predawn streets of Paterson, New Jersey—rather mean streets, at that—after making another wrong turn, and this aimless driving then went on, and on, for what seemed like a very long time, through neighborhoods that looked like something from a movie about gangs and drug dealing, or perhaps a set from some zombie apocalypse blockbuster.

It was scary and spooky, and maybe even more than a little dangerous.

But we eventually made it to the hospital, and miraculously, we were still on time.

The surgery went fine, everything considered. There was a prep stage prior to the surgery, where I was told to put on a hospital gown and take off any jewelry. At the time, this was only an earring that I had gotten in the Austrian Alps, and which I somehow then lost in the process. I then was given a shot of some supposedly mild sedative to prepare me for the big dose of anesthesia that was going to knock me out in the operating room.

The prep shot, however, was not so mild—but it was quite lovely. It was relaxing and subtle, a very pleasant kind of clear, and even, internal light. It smoothed everything out, to say the least, and it erased any of the anxiety I might have had about the impending life-threatening trauma that I was about to go through—the coronary bypass operation. This upcoming physical invasion into my chest cavity was, of course, all going to happen while I was unconscious.

But I had also, it seems, been having my own kind of prep long before I was lying on the gurney prior to my bypass surgery, with the IV dripping narcotics into my arm.

For a while, it seemed, I had been trying to get to places that I needed to get to, and that were, in fact, crucially important, but I kept on taking wrong turns. These missteps had led me, and my aged mother, into territories, neighborhoods, where people who looked like us did not belong.

My wrong turns took us down streets where people stood on corners and dealt drugs, and where women walked up to men in cars at intersections, who waited with the windows rolled down. These streets were mercifully empty in the predawn hours when we were driving down them. But make no mistake about it. These were tough urban neighborhoods in what is one of the most notorious drug dealing, gang infested cities in New Jersey.

And after somehow blundering into these places, I could not then find my way out.

It had happened twice, within a few hours. What was I thinking?

One thing I can say about it, in retrospect, is that as a result of this seemingly absent-minded behavior, I was, in an odd way, perhaps more ready to be placed in a situation—that is, the operating room—where I could absolutely have no control over the outcome.

I had recently been lost in worse places, one might argue, than this room of chrome and glass and shining lights, filled with men and women in white coats, and I had somehow always found my way home. By this point, however, it oddly wasn’t so much about getting home, which, in the case of the operating room, just meant staying alive, as it was about being comfortable with not knowing where I was.

The drugs I had been given as part of my medical treatment had something to do with it, of course, but I think that my recent inability to find my way, both from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to the hospital, had also prepared me for this life-changing medical experience, and in ways that, nine years later, I am still trying to come to grips with, to understand.

I have been doing these kinds of things for most of my life—getting lost and then wondering how it happened, trying to figure out just where I lost my way, and then finding out that no matter how closely I try to retrace my steps, I cannot for the life of me find the point where I went astray. Many times, the more important the thing is—whatever it is that I am trying to do—the more likely it becomes that I will somehow find a way to mess it up, and will then find myself driving down dark streets in the hours before dawn.

And finally, I might add one last thing.

Getting lost, in some very real sense, got me to the place where my life was saved. One might argue that in some sense I would eventually have gotten there anyway, but the truth is that the thing that got me there, the whole process that took me to the hospital to have my coronary bypass, which is probably why I am still alive nine years later, was getting lost.

Getting lost twice in New Jersey in 24 hours, then, in a way, at least, saved my life.

We never know how travel is going to affect us, whether we are trying to find our way to the hospital for a coronary bypass or flying from NYC to Tokyo, driving across the Rocky Mountains or taking a train from Vienna to Paris. One thing that we can count on, though, is that in some small way travel is going to change us.

Last year, my wife and I were walking around Kyoto, on the streets around an ancient Buddhist temple that I wanted to visit, and it was time for lunch. We were both very hungry.

We were passing a kind of very ordinary looking noodle shop, and I said to my wife that I’d like to stop there. I don’t read Japanese, and the signs were not in English, so I can ‘t really say why I wanted to stop, other than there was just something about the place that I liked, and as I said, we were both hungry and it was a hot day.

After a short wait we got a table in the middle of the room, facing the open kitchen, and with my wife’s help I ordered kimchi ramen, which I had never heard of. I knew, however, that I liked both kimchi and ramen, so I thought I would give it a try.

It was fabulous, a big bowl of hot and spicy noodles and cabbage in a noodle shop on a side street in Kyoto that we just walked into on a whim.

And the truth is, we were lost, just wandering around the city. And yeah, it was just a bowl of noodles, but it’s one of the best things I remember about that trip to Kyoto, or even about the whole trip to Japan. Not the most important, maybe, but it’s on the short list, which brings me to the ways that we are changed by travel, even if only the slightest bit.

We would not have found the noodle shop if we hadn’t been lost. If nothing else, this was one more reminder of how we might try to be open to new things when traveling, how receptive we should be to novel places and experiences that are presented to us without any way to prepare for them.

Being reminded of something like this probably won’t bring any dramatic change. And who knows. Maybe it won’t bring any change at all.

But then again, it just might be that being aware of things like this—the importance of allowing oneself to get lost, within reason, of course, and of being open to surprises—might lead to the kind of change that one doesn’t even see while it is happening.

And it’s possible, at least, that change like this is the kind of change that endures much longer than the more shallow changes that happen on the surface.

But whatever any of this stuff means, in some sort of intellectual, or even spiritual, sense, at the very least it can lead to a really good bowl of noodles.

And maybe that is enough.


Stephen Newton

Stephen Newton

Stephen Newton is Professor of English at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. He was a Fulbright Scholar in 2005-06 at the Institute for American Studies at the University of Graz in Austria. As a younger man he pumped gas in Alamosa, Colorado, drove a fork lift in a cement factory in Cleveland, was a nightshift janitor at the Grand Ole Opry, and one memorable Christmas was Santa Claus in a shopping mall outside Nashville.