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Author extols the pleasures that lie outside our comfort zones

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``A Field Guide to Getting Lost'' by Rebecca Solnit; Viking ($21.95)


Getting lost implies a lack of control that most of us dread: Where am I? How do I get to where I thought I was going? The fear is even more pronounced among men, who don't like asking for directions. To ask is to admit defeat and weakness and acknowledge that we are, indeed, lost.

But getting lost has a more exciting side that leads to discovery, spontaneity and the thrill of the new. It's this brand of disorientation that drives Rebecca Solnit's ``A Field Guide to Getting Lost,'' an ode to losing yourself and finding out what's on the other side of familiarity. For Solnit, a superb writer who deftly combines elements of history, travelogue and memoir, getting lost is more than a matter of mere physical circumstance. It's a state of mind to be embraced and explored, a gateway to discovering more about yourself in relation to the rest of the world.

The recurring theme in this ``Field Guide'' is "the blue of distance," that endless space that stretches out beyond a horizon as far as the eye can see. "Blue is the color of longing for distances you never arrive in, for the blue world," she writes. And a few pages later: "in this world we actually live in, distance ceases to be distance and to be blue when we arrive in it. The far becomes the near, and they are not the same place."

Anyone who has been on a long trip can relate to this concept. But Solnit takes her blue on travels far and wide. She looks at captivity stories from the Old West, when settlers were abducted by Indians, only to grow so comfortable over many years that they didn't wish to return (one thinks of John Wayne's maniacal quest to bring home Natalie Wood in ``The Searchers''). She explores the saga of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who walked across the Southwest, shedding layers of skin and identity like a molting snake.

Time vanishes into the distance, just as places do. But we reclaim both through memory, emotion and music, as Solnit observes in her chapter on country music and the blues - there's that color again. She finds lonesome magic in the songs of Tanya Tucker and Patsy Cline: "They were always about somebody recalling a tragedy that unfolded long ago, generally about someone else, so that a haze of remoteness lay over the once wrenching events, the kind of time that Joseph Conrad invoked when he'd set up a narrator on a docked ship telling a tale of another man in another ocean long before, an unresolved riddle to be revisited."

Then there's the biggest unknown of all: death. In recounting stories of her late aunt - a favorite limb on a family tree fraught with mystery and secrets - and of an old friend, a born romantic laid low by a drug overdose, Solnit showcases her ability to invest personal stories with universal significance. This ability is one sign of genius, a far-thinking quality that Solnit displays throughout this brief (206 pages) but endlessly evocative book.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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