The map was so colorful and inviting, and the place -- New Zealand -- so far off as to seem miniature, a snack of a nation. I would drive, I decided, the length of the South Island, to Invercargill in the south from Nelson at the northern tip -- there and back. After all, I had a car and two free days on my schedule.

It might have occurred to me that all of that color on the map meant something, that those streaks of violet, for instance, were reserved for altitudes above 8,000 feet, that red for the roads meant "rural connections."

It might have occurred to me that my attempt was the equivalent of seeing Portland, San Fran- cisco, Los Angeles and Yosemite in one weekend. No such occurrence, needless to say, occurred.

The first 10 miles were glorious going. Then I found my first sign of trouble, a sign reading "Metal Surface." "Metal roads," I thought, "what a wonderful concept," imagining myself borne smoothly southward on sheets of aluminum or tin.

"Metal" in New Zealand means gravel, big egg-sized chunks of rock snapping and spinning away beneath your tires. The next sign I saw was more straightforward: "One Way Bridge." I was to see many of these. Often what was coming the other way was a freight train.

Still I went on, sliding around curves, attempting to drive at American freeway speeds and putting my spindly Japanese car through the road test of its life. The road bucked and climbed into what can only be described as mountains. The place was beginning to seem disconcertingly life-size.

Officially this first ridge is called the Takaka Hill. Some hill -- a raw bouldery scarp that jumps up 6,000 feet in a few steep miles. Coming down, the road hooks through dozens of hairpin turns, arriving at last at the valley floor and a miners' hotel called The Rat Trap. The pub is decorated with photos of mangled trucks, overmatched by this Kiwi hill.

I ate my supper beneath these mementos, and still undeterred, got back in the car as the Kiwi twilight gathered in the valley. I should have seen the glint in the barkeep's eyes, when he heard where I was headed. "Invercargill," I said. "I hope to be there in the morning." He glanced out the window at my car. "I see," he said.

My route took me southwest across the island, over a spine of peaks and ravines called the Lyell Range, and down to the rocky coast. The road followed the gorge of the Buller River, sometimes verging precipitously over it, its white waters blasting over boulders below. Real darkness fell, and I found myself alone on the narrow road, under a sky of strange new stars, wrenching my car through the turns.

The most common way of getting lost is by not persisting. I was looking for the turnoff to a place called Cape Foulwind, and as I was still deluded about the bigness of this little island, I thought I'd missed it. I gingerly turned the car around, started back and took the unpromising cutoff I mistook for the right road. The path jolted steeply upward, and I blasted up it, dogged with exhaustion, downshifting until I had to stop.

There my headlights fell away over a void where the road had washed out. The place was too tight to turn around. I shut off the car and the lights. My shoulders hurt; the hot engine ticked in the dark.

Now the idea of failure, of fiasco, which all day had circled the situation, like a dog preparing its bed, lay directly and flabbily down on top of things. I was alone, lost and stuck on the far side of the earth.

Suddenly a shape emerged from the bush -- a lumberjack or something, clambering across the wash. "Hullo!" he shouted. "Don't you have a tint?"

"A tint?" I said.

"Yis," he boomed. "A tint." His name was Jeffrey, he was bearded and ripe-smelling, and he'd been camping for three weeks up here, working the tailings of an abandoned gold mine in the mountains. He'd heard me climbing up the road.

I was going to have a devil of a time getting my car down the hill in the dark, he said, expressing surprise that I'd gotten up there in the first place. It didn't take much, really, to convince me to abandon the car and go up the slope to his camp. He had a big canvas tent ("tint") and some blankets, ordinary kitchen pots and pans -- one with a monstrous wad of butter in it. I offered him a foil bag of dehydrated fettuccine and clam sauce, but he declined.

He did want to talk, though -- he hadn't seen a person for a month. He'd hitchhiked up from Christchurch to work the tailings, as he did three or four times a year. He'd make enough money in gold dust to live for a few months in town.

Finally he asked if I'd give him a ride to Greymouth in the morning, so he could have some dust assayed there. Sure, I said, though I wasn't sure where Greymouth was. After that, he went to bed. I got my sleeping bag unrolled and lay in this stranger's tent, listening to him breathe to make sure he was asleep.

So it was Jeffrey who got the car out of there -- I was dismayed to see the sheer road by daylight -- and it was he who got us at last to the limestone cliffs at the coast at Punakaiki, where far below us a wide ocean crushed itself into the rocks. We pulled over to look.

Though I was still far from unlost, I left the beguiling map folded where it was. I didn't want things to start seeming small again.

"What ocean is that?" I asked.

He gave me an astonished look. "That's the Tasman, of course," he said.

"Of course," I said. James Paul is an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, in the hills at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.