My grandfather once taught me how to use a sextant. We were at sea, motoring toward Baja California’s Isla San Martín, many miles off Punta Colonet, out of sight of land. The time was important, as I recall. We took turns squinting into the sextant’s sight, lining up the angle of the noonday sun so that the mirrors reflected its image onto the horizon line, which kept bouncing up and down with us and the boat and the ocean’s swell. It was hot, and awkward, and I remember wanting to give up on the task several times. Someone on board—my uncle, most likely—snapped a photo of us. I must have been aware of his taking it, because I’m hamming it up, brow furrowed and squinting hard into the sight, like I know what the hell I am doing. It’s not a good photo of me, but my grandfather looks perfectly at ease. He’d navigated this way during World War II, up to and even after his ship, a combat cutter, was torpedoed by a German sub and partially sank in the North Atlantic. He would have died were it not for some Icelandic fisherman who happened to be trawling nearby, and to whom I owe my existence. After making note of the angle, I remember retreating into the shade and staring at a nautical chart, then drawing a line from where we had been to where we now, with the help of the sextant, supposed we were. It seemed both very precise—the instrument, the charts, the various calculations—and something approximating a tremendous guess. The great blue sky and deep blue sea and us, on a little white boat, out in the vastness, trying to find our way.
About a year ago I began keeping a list of lost things: objects and areas that acted as engines of disappearance or disorientation; individuals who had vanished suddenly and mysteriously, then returned, or not; animals that had taken strange and extraordinary rambles trying to find—something, whatever it was wasn’t always clear. I suppose my intent was something like the sun lines I’d learned from my grandfather, the plotted points on a nautical chart. If I could take all these entries and order them just so, perhaps they would lead somewhere. When I began the list, the world was shutting down, the future felt terribly uncertain, and I felt lost. My lost list was a way to calm my mind, order chaos, plot a course through the unknown. I began with places.
The first entry is the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, in southern Utah—a mess of slot canyons, dry washes, and a few trails. People often get lost there. In 2012, a fifty-nine-year-old woman hiking the Box-Death Hollow jumped down a small ledge and broke her leg. Lying there, she realized she hadn’t told anyone where she was. She was also a diabetic and had failed to pack food. Forty years earlier, however, she’d taken a survival course; she had on her person a scarf and a walking stick, which she used to fashion a brace for her leg. During the day, she slept, so that she could stay up all night, huddled beneath her poncho in order to stave off hypothermia. She did not wander, for she knew that she wouldn’t get far with her leg. More importantly, she recalled from her course that once someone began looking for her, she had a much better chance of being found if she stayed put. On the fourth day, a local search and rescue team spotted her.
Beneath PLACES there are entries for the Black Sea, the North Sea, the Orkney Islands, the Bermuda Triangle, and Mocha Island, off the coast of Chile, where shipwrecks are so common that many of its houses are cobbled together from the scavenged parts of boats run aground. The Lost Sea in Tennessee is an underground lake, the largest in the United States, and where some 20,000 years ago, a giant jaguar, presumably lost in the darkness, plunged into a crevasse. The aforementioned Box-Death Hollow is alongside Cucamonga Canyon, in the San Gabriel range, near where I live in Los Angeles. The San Gabriels are young, still-growing mountains, crumbly and steep—difficult terrain and, on a clear day, visible to some twelve million Californians. People approach these mountains casually and spend a dangerous amount of energy ascending them, unaware that the descent is the more difficult journey. A few years ago, Eric DeSplinter and Gabrielle Wallace went on a hike near Cucamonga Peak. Wallace slipped on the ice near the summit and slid several hundred feet off the trail while DeSplinter scrambled after. They saw a canyon below: Cucamonga. Maybe it would be a faster way back down? Night was falling. They descended. Four days later, they were found on a cliff’s edge between waterfalls, and had to be airlifted to safety by helicopter.
What was it about these places that drew people to them? That drew me to them? Armchair travel, sure. But, also, something more. These places swallowed people up. I wanted to visit them all. Instead, I did the next best thing: I added and added to the list. I added an entry on Lop Nur, a dry salt lake in northwest China where an explorer named Peng Jiamu disappeared in 1980. His body has never been found. The hills surrounding the lake are prone to collapse, and perhaps that’s what took him. Under the entry for the Vortex Spring, north of Ponce de Leon, Florida, I have written “—where, on August 20, 2010, employees in the dive shop noticed Ben McDaniel’s pickup hadn’t moved for two days. McDaniel was a regular at Vortex Spring and was last seen leaving for a dive that would take him into a cave fifty-eight feet below the water’s surface. No trace of him has ever been found, and the cave systems extending out from the Spring are extensive, and not entirely mapped.”
A lost place’s power is inimical—these places draw people in and only sometimes spit them back out. Lost people are the inverse: not a place where people are regularly lost, necessarily, but individuals who became famously, sometimes bizarrely, lost. I’d had San Nicolas Island in the places section, for instance, but recently moved it to people and changed the entry to Juana Maria, who, circa 1833, was left on San Nicolas for nearly twenty years after most of her tribe, the Nicoleño, had been massacred, and the rest relocated to the California mainland. On October 13, 1853, soon after she was found and relocated, the Daily Democratic State Journal in Sacramento wrote this about her: “She existed on shell fish and the fat of the seal, and dressed in the skins and feathers of wild ducks, which she sewed together with the sinews of the seal. She cannot speak any known language—is good-looking, and about middle age. She seems to be contented in her new home among the good people of Santa Barbara.” A few months later, she died of dysentery. I once visited her grave on a class trip to the Santa Barbara Mission.
Under PEOPLE is a Toronto firefighter named Constantinos “Danny” Filippidis, who vanished on a ski trip in Lake Placid, New York and wasn’t seen again until six days later, when he called his wife from the Sacramento airport on a number she didn’t recognize. He was disoriented, still in his skiing gear when police found him. All he could remember was falling on the slopes and bumping his head. How, during those six days of his disappearance, he’d managed to travel more than three thousand miles from Canada to California, was a complete blank. And the story of Ada Blackjack, the sole survivor of a poorly planned 1921 Arctic expedition to claim Wrangel Island for Canada. Blackjack was hired as a seamstress and ended up living alone with a cat named Vic on Wrangel for the better part of two years after the four men on the expedition died of exposure and malnutrition. She was found, gaunt and smiling, in a reindeer parka she had sown. Vic was still alive, too, and with her when she was found. And Karina Chikitova, a four-year-old from Sakha, Siberia, who was lost in the woods outside her village in the dead of winter for nearly two weeks before she was found, surviving on nothing but melted snow and berries she scavenged. There is Carlos Sánchez Ortiz de Salazar, a doctor from Seville, who disappeared in 1996 and was eventually declared dead. Twenty years later, he was discovered by two mushroom pickers in northern Tuscany. He was alive and well and had been living as a hermit, but by the time his family had flown in to see him, he’d disappeared again, deeper into the woods. I have the “castaway couple,” Lucy Irvine and Gerald Kingsland. Kingsland was ex-British military, a professional adventurer-type who, in 1980, put an advertisement in Time Out—the London-based entertainment listings magazine—that he was looking for a woman to live with him on a deserted island for a year. Irvine responded, and in 1982 they went to live on Tuin, in the Torres Strait, between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Kingsland was forty-nine, Irvine twenty-four. Kingsland got ulcers all over his legs. Irvine got so sick from a batch of bad beans she nearly died. After close to a year, a drought fell on Tuin, the water supply dried up, and the pair could not find the radio antenna they needed to call for help. They were saved just in time by Badu Islanders, who encountered the castaways and nursed them back to health. Kingsland and Irvine each wrote books about the experience, although Irvine’s is better, more honest, more willing to interrogate her own ambivalences about the adventure, the island, and Kingsland. She was, and still is, a writer, and now lives a reclusive life in rural Bulgaria.
Next on the Lost List are THINGS. Those are tricky. Every second, so many things are lost, but how many of these lost objects take on a life of their own? The world’s oldest recovered message in a bottle was part of an ongoing experiment, started in 1914, after one Captain Brown, of Aberdeen, Scotland, curious about the ocean currents, sent out on the slack tide 1,890 bottled messages. Ninety-eight years later, Marine Scotland Science in Aberdeen logged the three-hundred-and-fifteenth of these bottles, which was pulled out of the sea, caught in a fisherman’s net off the Shetland Islands. Another seagoing Scottish object on my list: a toy ship, which two boys—Ollie and Harry Ferguson—launched from Peterhead, northeast of Aberdeen. It traveled across the North Sea to Denmark, then Sweden, then Norway, and eventually made passage aboard a full-size ship down to Cabo Verde, where it was relaunched, set free again to attempt an Atlantic Ocean crossing. This was in 2017. The little toy ship hasn’t been seen since.