Featured in Colorado Review
Aligning the Internal CompassFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Spring 2010
The first page of the Orienteering: Sport of a Lifetime brochure reads: “With a map and compass in hand, you head into the woods. It is a beautiful day and you are about to start off on an adventure: Orienteering.” At least I think that’s what it says. I can hardly read the text, soggy from rain dripping from the looming trees surrounding us.
My father and I stand at the edge of the woods in a Maryland state park at noon on a Sunday, waiting to begin our day of orienteering in an effort to improve, or at least test, our sense of direction. We look awkwardly at the other people waiting, a couple dozen of them chatting as though they already know one another and wearing very serious athletic gear. Our own jeans will be wet and mud covered by the end of the day.
. . .
Perhaps irrationally, I sometimes become terrified by the idea that when the world ends and I have to flee my city, my GPS may not be charged. When my father bought it for me as a gift a few years back, I quickly became dependent on it in the same way I rely upon my eyeglasses or electricity. That little screen probably saves me about forty cumulative hours a year that would otherwise be spent driving around, lost.
My whole life, I’ve been going in circles. While the GPS seems like it’s solving this problem, I’m pretty sure it’s setting me up for a fall. I’ve heard several friends with an impeccable sense of direction say they can no longer tell north from south because they’ve become too dependent on the TomTom or the Garmin stuck to their dashboard. If these people, previously capable of taking on the role of navigator on road trips, can’t figure out which direction to flee from the burning city when the time comes, I have to wonder what will become of me.
For years I have been under the impression that I was a lost cause, spatially. I can’t read maps. I don’t know which direction is which (although in the past couple of years I’ve started, in a sad, proud way, noting east or west when the sun is low, clearly on its way up or down). I can drive the same route a dozen times before I know which turn is mine. This makes me feel pathetic and, again, a little bit scared about how incapable I am.
As any self-help book will tell you, the first step is to under- stand your handicaps. I’ve found that this is true whether I’m reading to improve my relationship, reduce my carbohydrate intake, or assert myself in the workplace. I worry that sense of direction is different, though—maybe because there’s less out there to understand. It’s an elusive skill. Scientists all over the world are interested in it, but very few have come up with any- thing definitive to explain it, much less to help us learn our way out. It’s about gravitational pull, some say. Or, It’s all about cell orientation in the brain. These statements mean nothing to me, which is all right, because they’re still up for debate in the scientific community. For all of the research that’s been done, sense of direction is still a pretty abstract concept. What most scientists do agree on is this: On a super-simplified level, the brain needs three types of information to help us find our way. First, it needs to know where we are currently. Second, it needs to know the direction we’re heading. And third, the brain needs to calibrate our “current movement state” in relation to our goal destination. (This is the exact same process that a GPS follows, incidentally, if we’re breaking things down to a fifth- grade level.) Essentially, the process continually asks, “Are we going the right way?” A brain (or an impressive, expensive piece of electronic equipment) with all of these bits of information can provide an answer.
Terminology is important when discussing anything complicated, but when it comes to sense of direction, we tend to use terms interchangeably, but incorrectly. Often sense of direction gets mixed up with wayfinding, which actually refers to finding one’s way on the open ocean, using a combination of the sun, stars, and ocean swells. Navigation is another term that does not, it turns out, mean the same thing as sense of direction. Although it’s closer than wayfinding, navigation technically refers to finding one’s way using electronic aids—like a GPS. Pilotage is used less often, but still seeps into articles and conversations. This term, which originated in the 1570s, actually means finding one’s way with the use of recognizable landmarks—such as recalling a turn by the familiar coffee shop on the corner.
The terminology is disorienting, but the words matter less than the goal. I don’t need to run my vessel back to shore. I’d just like to be able to get to my brother’s condo without the directions I printed a year ago, secretly stored in the glove box and referenced every trip.
With this simple goal in mind, I began taking steps to improve my non-GPS-aided sense of direction. As I researched ways to improve, I came across several Web sites on orienteering, a “sport” in which participants race around in the wilderness with maps and compasses, trying to be the first to find a series of flag markers. This seemed less like a sport and more like hell, but it had the potential to be helpful.
Because my dad seems to know everything I don’t, I called him to talk about it.
“Orienteering? Never heard of it,” he told me.
I told him what I could from my cobbled reading and about my improvement goals. My dad is quick to tease me about my worthless sense of direction, although I’ve always suspected that his own is not too much better, that he is simply quieter about it.
“So, that’s about it,” I said. “All these nonprofit orienteering clubs host events in parks scattered all over the world. They’re just open—anyone can come, and you pay something small, like ten or twelve dollars, to join for the day.”
“Huh,” he said. “I’m in. When are we going?”
I envisioned my father and myself, covered in dirt and bits of bark, lost in the woods with flags tucked into our belts. The image was only slightly less terrifying than imagining myself alone in the same situation.
A few weeks later, armed with a map of the park, directions from the Quantico Orienteering Club’s Web site, and a GPS, we set off.
. . .
Here’s the truth: On the way to the park, we got lost. We each tried to blow it off, claiming poor mapmaking and a lack of updates for the GPS software, but we knew it said something more about us.
As my father drove in circles, I read out loud from the “Beginner’s Instruction” I’d printed from the Web site.
“The goal is to find numbered ‘controls,’ in numerical order, in the fastest time possible . . . go over your clue sheet for a description of features, list of control codes . . . a triangle is the start (and usually the finish too) and circles highlight features. Are you getting any of this?” I asked.
“No,” he answered, his eyes on the wet road.
I continued: “White equals normal forest, which is different from USGS maps . . . What are they even talking about?”
“I have no idea,” he said.
. . .
Although research doesn’t point to sense of direction as a hereditary skill, anecdotal evidence seems to. Little definitive work (the word definitive being key here) has been done on the “born with” vs. “acquired” nature of directional sense. What has been determined is that how a person perceives his or her directional capabilities is usually pretty accurate. Those who think they have a good sense of direction are usually right, and those who know they can’t find their way back from the bathroom without a scale map know their limits as well. When people are asked to rate their directional sense and then find their way, the correlation is more or less dead on in terms of who gets lost.
What this means practically is this: You’ve gone astray on a road trip with two people. One claims to have a good sense of direction and one claims to lack it. However, they both think they know the way. One says left and one says right. Open the car door and push the one with no sense of direction out onto the road.
Most people admit to realizing their poor sense of direction when they began driving. For years I tried to convince myself that my constant confusion was chance, but eventually, I had to give up the lie. Just after graduating from college, one Sunday afternoon I found myself performing a “practice” drive on Interstate 95 in northern Virginia the day before a job interview. I lived an hour and a half from the location (I planned to move if offered the job). I-95 is known to be one of those highways that are somehow packed at all hours, every day, and I didn’t trust myself to find the office under pressure, despite the fact that it was just off the highway. So, instead, I spent Sunday plotting out my course, sitting in traffic, and searching the empty building for the entrance. The day was exhausting, but worth it as I pictured myself lost without the dry run, calling my interviewers and sobbing on the side of the road, which I suspected was less acceptable than the similar calls I often make to my father. I got the job and consulted my written directions every day for months as I commuted.
. . .
After finally finding the park, we stand at its edge. I hear movement in the leaves, and both my father and I look up from the map to see a dozen deer. They seem to see us as well, but they don’t take off the way deer usually do on the side of the road. Instead, they run gracefully, slowly—jog, really.
I tell my dad that I have never been so close to so many deer. They were only twenty yards away. Or maybe a hundred yards. Or a hundred feet? Two hundred?
The ability to estimate distances is closely tied to sense of direction. Is that building fifty feet away or three hundred yards? No idea? Me neither. This is a telltale sign of a poor sense of direction. Other questions to help determine one’s directional abilities include Can you read a map? Do you like looking at maps? Can you use a map without turning it to orient your actual placement? Umm, no, no, and no. Do you recall the locations of things, like, say, the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store? Absolutely not. Can you automatically reverse directions? Do you easily find your way around unfamiliar buildings? No and no.
A lot of these indicators refer to “mental rotation” skills, also known as the ability to conjure up a “cognitive map.” The idea of a cognitive or mental map, introduced by psychologist Edward C. Tolman of UC Berkeley in 1948, is one of the only ways we can measure sense of direction, or at least our ability to store and retrieve information about our environment. Essentially, a cognitive map is an imagined setting. If you close your eyes and picture your childhood bus stop, or the layout of your house, you’re creating a cognitive map. Some people suggest that those of us with a poor sense of direction either don’t make such maps, make only limited versions of them, or can make them but can’t reclaim information from them.
Most commonly, however, mental rotation skills determine whether or not you have to turn the map to figure out which direction is which. If you use mental rotation, and use it well, you don’t need to turn the map; the manual rotators inside your brain do it for you. Mental rotation skills also allow us to imagine what something looks like from the side, or upside down, whether it’s a painting or the layout of a neighborhood. Many people have adequate mental rotation skills for a certain period, but lose them when things get complicated. For example, I may be able to keep track of the direction of the highway for a couple of turns after the exit, but after a few more, I lose my bearings completely.
. . .
On orienteering day, there is a lot of map turning.
We leave the deer and walk down a short path, following the triangle-shaped, orange “Orienteering!” signs. We find the registration table and get in line. We avoid eye contact with our fellow orienteerers and instead make jokes about their tight pants. Every few minutes someone takes off running from the front of the line—it is a timed sport—and darts suddenly into the woods while holding up a map in one hand and a compass in the other. We both laugh hysterically every time this happens.
When we reach the table, we’re given a small, plastic “e- card.” A man behind the table instructs us to insert it into the electronic punch unit by each flag, or checkpoint, along the orienteering route to confirm that we successfully found it. We’re then told three times: You must punch the e-card at the end so we know you’ve made it out of the woods. The orange e-card slides onto my middle finger, and I slip the attached wristlet over my hand, imagining the search party that will surely be sent out for us.“
There are a lot of people with foreign accents,” my dad says. I turn to him, ready to reprimand him for what I think might be an inappropriate comment when I realize that there really are a lot of different accents. It makes sense. Orienteering originated in Sweden in the early 1900s but wasn’t introduced to the United States until the middle of the century. Local clubs here branch out from the U.S. Orienteering Federation (USOF), but apparently the group isn’t much for marketing, as the “Sport of a Lifetime” never really caught on in this country the way it did in Europe and other areas of the world.
After waiting in another line for a few minutes, I trade the car keys for a compass, as collateral, and ask a man behind the table when the “orienteering orientation” I read about on the Web site will begin. I’m told that it isn’t as formal as all that, but he’d be happy to give me a quick introduction. I wave my dad over and we all look at a map in a plastic covering. The man holds the compass against the map, showing us how to determine “north,” both on the page and in the park. He then places his finger on one of the marked checkpoints and turns the compass, explaining that by determining the direction of the destination in relation to north by using the compass, we will know exactly where to trek.
I glance at my dad and he raises his eyebrows, lifting one corner of his mouth as if to say, “I hope you’re getting this.”
I picture us lost in the woods, trampled by deer, who probably despise orienteering day—all the spandex, all the e-card beeping. I imagine them discussing what in the hell it is all these assholes are doing out here in the rain anyway. A compass? I hear them say. Ridiculous.
Sense of direction in animals is both (a) easier to study than it is in humans, and (b) really, crazy impressive, comparatively. Case in point: One species of snail, when taken from its home in a cloth bag, is able to orient itself and find its way back for up to forty miles. Last week, I went to a new CVS approximately three miles from my house. I got lost on the way home.
Migratory birds are often noted as having the most impressive animal sense of direction, which makes sense. About 80 percent of North American birds migrate, some over oceans and across continents. One bird, called the red knot, travels eighteen thousand miles round trip each year from the tip of South America to the Arctic and back again.
For years, theories have been thrown around about sense of direction in migratory birds. The birds use landmarks, some people said, or they depend upon an amazing sense of smell. They used the stars, others suggested. It turns out, they use an internal, magnetic compass, which is, in a sense, recalibrated every night based on the direction of the sun as it sets. In 2004 scientists tracked migratory songbirds—gray-cheeked thrushes—catching them just before their departure and placing them in an artificial magnetic field. When they were released, the birds flew through the night on the wrong path, and then stopped and corrected themselves by 90 degrees, back toward their desired destination, as soon as the sun rose.
At least we understand the need for the birds’ sense of direction. They migrate. Fair enough. Some animal behavior related to directional sense, though, remains a mystery. Last year, after looking at photo after photo of cattle fields, a team of German and Czech researchers discovered that cows tend to align their bodies either facing directly north or directly south, regardless of where they are in the world. Why are they lined up this way? How do they know to do it? Although it’s assumed that the positioning has to do with the magnetic fields of the earth, no one seems to be clear on the specifics. These invisible magnetic lines might be strong enough for the cows to sense them, but why is that beneficial to the animals? No one knows.
The magnetic field is oddly prevalent in all kinds of animal orientation. Termites line up along its cardinal axes—either north to south or east to west. If the nest is turned, they will reorient themselves to these directions. If a strong magnet is placed above the nest, it throws them off. Yellow eels also use the magnetic field. Honeybees do too. And salmon.
Homing pigeons are more of a mystery. It was long thought that they, too, relied solely upon the magnetic field to find their way. In studies that disrupt the field, the pigeons’ path was thrown off. But, in 2004, after tracking pigeons using GPS satellites for ten years, researchers at Oxford University announced their—let’s be honest, ludicrous—findings: Rather than using the sun for directional bearings, it turns out that the pigeons use roads they’ve traveled in the past as a guide, turning at junctions and, sometimes, even going around traffic circles. Then, three years after this study, different scientists found that iron-containing structures within the birds’ beaks apparently also aid in their sense of direction. They might even have the ability to use “atmospheric odors.” Long-story short: When it’s time to flee, those pigeons are going to be safe in some faraway bunker long before I am. Apparently so will snails and termites.
. . .
“Okay,” my dad says as we start walking. “The lake is over there, and according to the map, we’re supposed to curve around to the left of it.”
I raise the compass on the string around my neck. “Should we be using this?” I ask.
“It’s up to you,” he says. I look at the map and realize that we should be able to use the landmarks—the lake, the marked trails—instead. (Read: We should be able to cheat.) This is helpful, because neither of us, we agree, understands how to use the compass in relation to finding our way around this park.
Like calculating square footage or breakdancing, using a compass is something I’ve repeatedly tried and failed at. I get the basic concept, but not the next steps: The needle is pointing NW, so . . . ? Other people apparently love these things, though. There’s a surprisingly big market, it turns out, for compass-related gifts. One can purchase compass tie tacks, compass cuff links, compass necklaces, pocket compasses. I adore the idea of a businessman standing in the woods, holding up his French- cuffed sleeve to see if he should head deeper into the trees or turn back. Two different people have given me compasses for my car. The thought is there, but they’re practically worthless. I can’t picture my destination on a map anyway, so I don’t know which way I’m supposed to be going, even if I can determine north, south, east, or west.
My dad and I do not use the compass once the whole day.
Whether it’s animals honing in on magnetic fields, or the orienteerers using their hand-held compasses, most scientists agree that magnetics play a large part in one’s sense of direction. In the late seventies, an experiment was done that proved magnetic fields contributed in some way to the “internal compass” of humans as well. Scientists loaded up a bus and blindfolded the passengers and announced that they were placing magnetic bars on everyone’s heads, although in reality half were magnetic and half were brass. The bus drove around for a while, then the scientists asked everyone to identify their current compass direction. Overwhelmingly, those wearing magnets were less capable than the control (brass) group.
Magnetics plays a role, but it’s not all magnetics. It’s not all anything, in fact. Mysteries breed myth, and sense of direction is a big enough mystery that all the crazies come out with their suggestions. Poor sense of directions stems from left-handedness, some say. Oh, it’s tied to dyslexia, others claim. People with a poor sense of direction are simply inattentive. Or, They’re stupid. Some say, Sense of direction is connected to geometry. Can’t understand angles? You won’t have any directional abilities. Others argue, People with no sense of direction are probably mildly dyspraxic (a disorder related to difficulty carrying out a plan, physical or otherwise). Still others say that it stems from not spending enough time outside as a kid. Or that those involved in sports at a young age develop a better spatial ability and, therefore, a better sense of direction.
Then there is, of course, the gender theory.
“Men have a better sense of direction because of the whole ‘hunter/gatherer’ thing, I think,” my uncle tells me when I bring it up. “We were supposed to go out and collect food and roam away from the cave to do it, whereas women were safest staying in one place, taking care of the babies.”
This is a surprisingly popular theory, at least among people I know, which may say something about the people I know. It’s a hot topic among scientists as well, although it rings distinctly true or false depending on whom you ask. While there are definite gender differences in the way people approach finding their way, no one seems to agree on whether the approaches taken by men or by women are more effective.
Men are more likely to use “survey strategies”—using north, south, east, and west descriptors—than women. Women are more likely than men to use route strategies, such as landmarks, or stating the approximate time it takes to travel between two locations. Neither strategy is proven to be markedly more effective than the other.
Women do, however, consistently rate their sense of direction as worse than men. We also know that among children, boys do have better mental rotation skills. In one study, girls and boys were each given a map and asked to “mentally” make their way across town without rotating it. Then they were asked to state whether they would be turning left or right at particular intersections. The boys, unfortunately, rocked this experiment compared to the girls. Some attribute higher testosterone levels during fetal development, suspecting that they may aid in developing the part of the brain responsible for mental rotation, but no one can really say how much this has to do with factors more associated with “nurture” than “nature.”
Some research does suggest that this spatial ability carries over into adulthood, and other researchers adamantly dispute it. One study, conducted by what I’m guessing was a pretty unpopular researcher, suggests not only that women have a worse sense of direction than men, but that gay men have a worse sense than straight men. The study showed gay men, straight women, and lesbians navigating with the same weaknesses, which included a lack of ability to rely on local landmarks, in- creased time needed to analyze spatial information, and poor routing in general.
What researchers do agree on is markers: If I ask the average man how to get to the Thai restaurant near my house, he’d tell me to go eight hundred yards and then turn left, then wind down the road for another half of a mile. The average woman would tell me to turn left at the yellow house, and then go down until I see the coffee shop. When I see it, I’ll know the restaurant is just a few minutes further. In explaining a route, men will more often cite distances and cardinal directions like “north” or “west.” Usually, women cite landmarks.
. . .
After a half hour or so of wandering and inserting our e-card at the first few checkpoints, my father and I round a corner and find ourselves walking alongside a father-son team in matching red windbreakers.
“It is your first time?” the father asks in a thick, charming eastern European accent.
“Can you tell?” my dad replies, smiling.
“It is for him as well,” the man says, pointing to his little boy, who looks to be about nine.
As they walk ahead, I tell my father to stop watching them. The brochure clearly declares among the Golden Rules of Orienteering: “Do not follow other orienteerers!”
While stalking other orienteerers is considered cheating, it’s a strategy I have mastered when it comes to finding my way outside of the woods. In addition to following others, I am big on repetition. The first few months of a new job has me whispering, “Left, left, right” every time I exit the elevator and try to find my office. I also count the rows whenever I walk up the ramp of a dark movie theater toward the restroom: “one, two, three, four, and left.” I repeat it the whole time I’m gone so that I can find my seat again—this after once accidentally sitting down next to a stranger during a particularly suspenseful scene of the film Coyote Ugly.
In using these strategies, I’m not trying to increase my actual abilities the way I am by orienteering. Instead, I’m simply trying to get where I need to be in whatever way I can—a common desire for those of us who tend to get lost at every turn. Other coping mechanisms I’ve heard: I print directions to and from any new destination and keep them in a binder in my trunk. Or, I leave myself voicemail messages with landmarks. And I don’t drive or—the worst—I never go anywhere alone.
In my efforts to improve my directional ability, I came across a book called Never Get Lost Again. It’s small and the cover features a drawing of a blonde woman in cargo capri pants standing on a compass and holding a map. A friend saw me reading it and said, “She’s not even looking at the map!” This should have been a red flag. The book provides absolutely no useful in- formation. The author’s suggestions include such gems as “Get clear, specific directions,” “Learn to read a map,” and “Ask for directions.” Very helpful, indeed. Oh, if only I’d known to get directions all these years.
What is helpful, then, for improving non-GPS-aided sense of direction? Very, very little, it seems. The sun always seemed like a safe fallback, at least in terms of east and west. However, in fact, the sun doesn’t rise and set exactly due east or due west. There’s some seasonal variation, I learn, which is really just one more factor working against me.
The orienteering techniques were slightly more useful, though in more of an “I’m-lost-in-the-woods!” kind of way than a “How-do-I-get-to-Chipotle?” kind of way, which is closer to what I really need. One strategy I was particularly impressed with is called the “Shadow-Tip Method.” You start by finding a long stick and planting it in a relatively clear spot of level ground where you can see the shadow. With a rock you mark the spot on the ground where the shadow stops. The direction of the shadow is west “everywhere on earth,” several sources explain. Then you wait fifteen minutes, mark the shadow’s new spot on the ground, and draw a straight line in the dirt from the first to the second. This marks the east-west line. You go from there.
This makes absolutely no sense. How can it always be west? you ask. It turns out, the shadow will move in the exact opposite direction as the sun, and the sun always moves west. So, the next time I’m lost in the woods with access to a watch and a piece of tree, and a better memory than I currently possess, I’m set.
. . .
Of eight orienteering courses, which increase in difficulty, we’ve chosen to do course number 1, which winds only along park trails. It is, I suspect, the course most often utilized by elementary school children. Remarkably, my dad and I get really lost only once, between flags seven and eight, near the end.
As we’ve hiked I’ve tried to note about how long it takes us to walk to each flag, as compared to the distance shown on the map. The shorter distances end up being around ten minutes, and the longer ones are fifteen or twenty. The rain has picked up and we’ve both commented several times how much we’re looking forward to lunch when I realize we’ve been walking for quite a long time on one of the shorter jaunts. As I stop and pull out the map, I ask, “Did you see which way that guy and his son went?”
“Isn’t that against the rules?” my dad asks, stomping to get some mud off of his sneaker.
The orienteering map is one of the most intricate, least decipherable pieces of paper I’ve ever seen. The legend shows thirty four different symbols and their corresponding objects or terrains, all included in an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. One can find anything from the symbol for “stony ground” or “impassable cliff” to “knoll / small knoll / dot knoll.” Black boxes show buildings. A building up on our right seems to correspond with one of the boxes above the wide circle we’ve been hiking. I point this out and suggest that as we’re halfway around the circle already, we should just keep walking and complete it, then go from there. My father thinks it’s a different black box. In the end, neither of us is right and it takes us another half hour to find the next flag.
. . .
The Orienteering brochure wants me to know that “getting lost should not be scary for many reasons” and that “wandering around will only worsen the degree of ‘lost’ that you are in.” This information makes sense in theory, but in practice, who hasn’t been absolutely sure they’d find their way after just one more turn or another few miles?
People getting lost is big business. In addition to GPSs made specifically for cars, we can now add the technology to our cell phones and even our stopwatches when we run. And outside of this technology, there are companies like Corbin Design, a firm based in Michigan focused on providing buildings and campuses clear directional signage. Their slogan is “People get lost. We fix that.” I don’t think they do, though. Good signage is not unlike the GPS—helpful in the moment, but a Band-Aid for a larger problem. Technology and design can help us find our way, but they don’t improve our skills at all.
In my grandfather’s pool when I was a kid, I’d lie on a squeaky, blue plastic raft and close my eyes. He would grab my hand and swim around the pool, tugging me along on the raft behind him, our wrinkled, chlorine-seeped fingers entwined. He’d tread water while spinning the raft slowly. Eventually, he would stop and ask me to guess where we were in the pool without opening my eyes. By the diving board? In the shaded corner? Dead center? This was not a large pool by any standards, but besides the occasional coming and going of the bright sun, I had no tracking device. Inevitably, I’d guess: “By the back, near the cabana!” or “In the shallow end by the steps!” My guess was invariably wrong. Then we would switch and he’d climb onto the raft. Before he was even settled, splashing cool water onto the almost-burning plastic, I was off, spinning him as fast as I could while pushing the raft to all four corners of the pool. When I was exhausted, I’d say, “Okay, what do you think?” He was right every time.
So why could he do it and I couldn’t? Grekin, the author who offered the worst advice ever, uses the term “directionally challenged” when describing the people of the world who, like me, can’t find their way back from CVS, or figure out which way is north or in which end of the pool they’re floating. She also calls having a poor sense of direction “a real disability,” though I suspect the American Disability Association would disagree. Sense of direction is a mystery in the same way as sense of time or sense of balance. You have it or you don’t. Research is continually being done, but it’s not easily understood.
Some people call sense of direction the “sixth sense.” But this isn’t quite right either, as not everyone is born with a sense of direction in the same way that most people are born with the other five. Sure, some folks can’t hear or see, but both anecdotal and research-based evidence tells us that far, far more people are born each day without a sense of where they are in the world. And it seems to me that, for all of my attempts over the past thirty years, it’s almost as impossible to improve one’s sense of direction as it would be to regain lost hearing or sight. Loss or lack of such a true “sense” is surely a worse plight, but in some ways we can look at them similarly. There are things we can do to compensate, or work around our deficiencies—Braille or sign language, for instance—but for all of my trying, I’ll never be able to train myself into having a strong, intuitive sense of direction. And if that’s the case, then is there anything wrong with cheating? In this way it seems that the car compass or stacks of secret directions or counting rows in a movie theater is almost more impressive than truly recognizing whether I’m going north or south on an unmarked road. In working to understand and improve my sense of direction, I’ve realized that I’m going to be memorizing, learning by rote, forever—and that using a GPS isn’t cheating but instead a work-around that makes life easier, less frustrating. I wish finding my way came naturally, but it never will. And if I’m going to be wandering through life blindfolded with a magnetic bar strapped, figuratively, to my head, I might as well be able to hear that little box bolted to my dashboard as it tells me, “Left turn ahead.”
. . .
Eventually, jeans soaked up to our knees and our stomachs growling, we buzz the final checkpoint, just twenty or a hundred yards away from the registration stand. The event has taught me nothing about finding my way, minus a few tricks with shadows and sticks. I want to view the whole day as useless, a day in which I learned only that those with strong directional skills like tight pants, but it’s just as much my fault. When I didn’t understand the compass lesson, I didn’t ask for clarification. I just found another work-around strategy and used the lake and the paths as landmarks, immediately abandoning the challenge of mental mapping—the reason I’d come in the first place.
When we give back our compass, we’re handed a printout of our total time on the course, as well as the time it took us to travel between each station. This allows for “comparing times with your fellow orienteerers.” I glance around at a couple of eight-year-olds who beat us, and then at the athletes who found their way through gullies and “impassable cliffs.” My dad and I agree, without speaking, to skip this comparison step. We try to remember where we parked the car, and then program the GPS with my address, less sure of how to get home than snails in a cloth bag.
Jessica McCaughey is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia, where she also teaches English. She has previously published in flashquake and Alalitcom.