The hard part, I was sure, was over. In spite of reckless drivers and narrow hedgerows, I had made it to Chagford and breathed a sigh of relief to see the open country before me. Just a brief walk from the town square lay the moor. I was already later than I’d hoped to be, and so I set off without stopping to ask for hiking directions, or stocking up on provisions. If the trail guide that my hostess had lent me could be trusted, the walk would only be about an hour. I would be back in town for lunch.
A few minutes along the path, I stopped to consult the said guide. It took a number of reversals of its sparse, stylized, map for me to realize that it was oriented east rather than north. Even then, something seemed odd. I checked it against the landmarks that I could now see before me. Turned the right way, the location of the landmarks on the hiking guide were still incorrect. “This map had one job,” I grumbled inwardly, and had evidently not thought it worth the bother. But then I looked out towards the moor, and all any notion of giving it up left my mind. In the thin November light it would be full of delicate color, of desolate beauty. The roses in the garden were still blooming; what would I find on the moor itself? I decided to try my luck.
As I followed along the trail, the moor opened around me, soft as the sea under the gray clouds. I knew a few names from guidebooks I had consulted before leaving, but the ability to greet a tor (giant pillar of granite) like an old friend does not make one immediately capable of navigating by it. Each geographical feature I had learned had only made me hungry to know more, and now it seemed I would remain so. I was also hungry for lunch, but that would have to wait. At length I realized that I was steadily descending from high ground, the town disappearing behind deceptively hilly moorland. Down in the hollow, there was a slight, silvery lacing of early frost.
I could have turned back early. It might have been wiser, given the lack of map. However, I am stubborn, the day was, if not young, at least not over, and the place was too beautiful to leave. Names such as Hound Tor conjured up Holmesian fantasies, and reminded me of how treacherous the place could be to the unwary. The barrenness of the landscape drew me on, each object or irregularity standing out in the distance, yet in the microcosm, I found upon glancing down, the land was far from featureless. Grasses, small plants, lichens, rocks, all uniform at a distance, took on rich and fascinating detail up close.
The path was becoming a path in name only, the slightly more trodden patches of grass showing where others had been before me, though at times, it was hard to tell whether they were made by people or wildlife. Stream crossings complicated things, as the path would disappear on the other side, only to pick back up in unexpected places. The moor is full of illusions, but the most powerful one at that point was that of distance, as a sudden roll of the ground would reveal a boulder that had previously seemed far away, or conceal a nearby tree by which I had been steering. I had long since left the path supposedly marked by the map.
After a few hours I was truly, gloriously, ecstatically lost. It was still too early in the day for this to be a problem. The light was low enough to be interesting, but not on the verge of vanishing, and though I still had a general idea of which direction I had come from, it was beyond my powers to say where civilization was. It was then that I saw the stone circle. No Stonehenge by any stretch, but a ring of deliberately placed standing stones that marked the landscape, even with no other human structure in sight. I was not alone, even if the only other people there were ancient or fictional, even if the stories that shaped this place were ones that I did not know. The sight of the stones reminded me of many things at once: of fairy rings, of ancient history, of the constant process of reinventing landmarks as their meaning is forgotten. All at the edges of knowledge, all too vague to understand what I saw. I walked on, a trespasser.
By then, I could not have turned back even if I wanted to. The map had failed me, as I knew it would. I would be lost on the moor, and if not actually chased by a spectral hound, at least imagining it around every boulder. Perhaps I would be trampled by ponies, or gradually covered over by a thin rime of frost. The light was falling swiftly, the wind was colder, and the path was gone. Too tired and hungry to panic, I could only walk on and, once more, trust in luck. If I made it back to the road now, it would be through no skill of my own.
Which is exactly what happened. Chance, having brought me this far, now saw me through. My feet found themselves back on a path, some seven hours after leaving it, and found the road back to Chagford and the nearest inn, full of low, welcoming lights, and hot chocolate. Perhaps my navigation was better than I had thought, or perhaps I had just stumbled across the right route. My map had had nothing to do with it, and I don’t think I could retrace the journey if I tried. Nor do I recommend repeating it. Still, as far as getting lost goes, it was an entirely satisfying experience.