When my wife was little she had a doll she was always losing; the family named it Where-she, from her plaintive cries. By that example, camping trips should be called Where-car-keys, foreign travel should be called Where-passport, and phones have been Where-phones ever since they stopped being permanently connected to walls. We accept that the universe is chaos. As for my own excursions into the outdoors, they produce entropy in such abundance that I even lose the list of things I’ve lost. And on my way home, that suede jacket I left on the airplane…
It’s easier and less painful to recount the epiphanies of finding. On a trip to the Ausable River, my watch was on the muddy ground below the deadfall branches that I’d been walking on before falling through them; from miles up the river, I carefully retraced my steps and found it. On the Delaware River, my fly rod lay among the reeds on the bank where I’d set it when we were hauling out the canoes. Finding it, at twilight, when I’d almost given up until a silvery glint of ferrule betrayed it, had the quality of a miracle—as if a reed suddenly became a fly rod. In Providenyia, Russia, across the Bering Strait from Nome, a black nylon bag full of expensive photo equipment had been put away for safekeeping by the kind and well-meaning woman we were staying with. The photographers, my companions on the trip, to whom it belonged, spoke no Russian. I knew just enough—“Gdye veshchi?” (“Where are our things?”)—to produce the bag and avert a possibly awkward scene.
Coming upon items that other human beings have lost, in situations where one’s own carelessness is not an issue, can be the purest joy. Walking a footpath along the Pigeon River in northern Michigan I once found an arrowhead. I’ve found a number of arrowheads and other Indian objects in my life but can never convey the bliss they bring me. That day I was fishing, looking for a better spot, when suddenly I saw the willow-leaf-shaped point in the gray sand of the trail. Picking it up and rubbing the sand off it produced a thrilling mental swoop through space-time. Near that same river, among high ferns on the floor of a pine forest, I found an aluminum hunting-arrow with plastic fletches and a formerly razor-sharp barbed steel point now rusted and crumbling. The stone point had held up better.
I could spend my life walking along and looking for things. A museum on the Texas plains (I forget where) displays a spur lost by the expedition of Francisco Coronado (1540-42), which a local man had found; I wondered if the conquistador who it belonged to noticed he’d lost it, and if he’d brought a spare. And if he hadn’t, did he fret about it, and blame himself, and think he must be going out of his gold-hungry mind? If the universe is entropy, finding lost items restores a tiny piece of order, and suggests a heaven where every sheep has been found; as in, “Seek and ye shall find.” That’s why, when you lose all the cash that you and your friends have pooled together to pay the rafting guide, and that has been entrusted to you, the proper attitude is not the hyperventilating and panicked self-recrimination you will fall into. Instead, have faith. It must be somewhere. The conquistador probably got upset about the spur, blamed himself, ransacked his conquistador kit bag, and decided someone had stolen it. But the truth was revealed in time.
When I was eleven my brother and I decided it would be fun to dive for the red plastic mouthpiece of one of the snorkels our grandmother had just bought for us. This was off Smathers Beach in Key West, a place with a more complicated bottom than we had expected. We never found it, and Grandmother remembered that lost snorkel mouthpiece for the rest of her days. It will be one of the first subjects she mentions when I meet her on the other side. Then St. Peter will tell us where it is right now, with GPS coordinates and photographs.