What do you do when you're lost?

Penn Station, New York.
Penn Station, New York. Photo: 123

My friend Karl and I were confident we knew what we were doing. We were, after all, 17 and fresh out of high school, so there was very little we didn't know. We'd been told to get a train from Boston to New York. Well, we thought that's what we'd been told.

Anyway, we knew the person we were going to meet lived in New York, and if you want to get to New York you just hop on a train to New York. Right? Right.

Our Bostonian friend had recommended a train that would take a good three or four hours, by our calculations, to get to our destination. It stopped pretty much everywhere. Karl and I, however, were smarter than that, and had just spotted a direct train that would get us to Penn Station in about half the time.

Perfect. We bought tickets, congratulated ourselves on our travel-savvy greatness and settled into our seats as the train pulled out of Boston and began the journey south.

Karl and I were on a gap year, having finished high school and both been unable to muster the enthusiasm for university.

This was our first stop on a year-long journey - a soft landing for a couple of 17-year-olds striking out on their own, staying with my mum's best friend on the outskirts of Boston.

Wanting to see the Big Apple, we'd arranged to stay with some more friends in New York, and it was that family we were now on our way to meet. Or so we thought.

We crossed Massachusetts, flew through Connecticut, and eventually the fields and forests of New York State began to give way to the towers and apartments of New York City, the metropolis of our dreams.

We finally pulled in to Penn Station, and Karl and I grabbed our bags and headed out the door, ready to meet our new friends, ready to explore.

Except, there was no one there.

"Were they supposed to meet us?" Karl asked as the commuter crowd ebbed and flowed around our little island of backpacks. "I don't know," I said. "I'm pretty sure they said they'd be waiting for us at the station.""Yeah?" Karl said, gazing around the huge terminal. "Where in the station?"

Only then did the enormity of the task ahead of us hit: we had no idea where we were supposed to meet these people. In fact, having never met them, we didn't even know which people to look for. And we were standing in one of the world's busiest train stations in one of the world's biggest cities, with no idea what to do.

These days if I see frightened, inexperienced tourists wandering the streets of my home town I offer to help, because I know that feeling. We all have to start somewhere. We all get lost. For Karl and I, this was our time.

So you're stuck in a strange city in a time long before Wi-Fi, or even mobile phones. What do you do? Head for a payphone.

Down some halls and up some stairs we eventually found one, but then discovered another problem: we had to call Boston, which was going to require a lot of quarters. Karl trotted off to buy something from a convenience store and beg for his change to be all 25-cent pieces. I guarded the bags.

Eventually we got the quarters, but found that every time we loaded in enough to make a long-distance call to Boston, the phone would spit them out again. We tried this probably five times before trying another tack: a collect call.

Eventually, mercifully, a phone in Boston began to ring, and my mum's friend picked up.

"Guys! Where are you?"

"New York."

"But where in New York?"

"Um ... Central New York?"

"Oh my God."

Turns out we weren't supposed to be in central New York. Confusing our New York State with our New York City, and being desperate to get into the thick of the action, we'd ignored a fairly vital part of our instructions: get off at Stamford. Which, it turns out, isn't even in New York State. It's in Connecticut.

It's also where our friends were, standing on a platform waiting for two know-it-all Aussie gap year kids to turn up looking for a place to stay. Karl and I grabbed our packs and walked to the Penn Station ticket counter, bought ourselves a one-way journey back to Stamford, found our train and jumped on board. The towers and apartments of New York City gave way, in reverse, to the fields and forests of New York State.

And eventually we were back in Connecticut, and finally at Stamford, where, sure enough, there was a family ready to take us into their home.

Turns out, Karl and I didn't know what were doing back then. But I'm sure we do now. Right?

Did you learn some hard lessons on your first trip? What sort of experiences have you had getting lost while travelling? Post your comments below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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