How getting there isn’t always so easy

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Image credit: Hendrik Morkel on Unsplash

How many times have you someone say, “why do men never ask for directions?”

A few years ago there was a story in the national news about a man who set out in the south of England to drive twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers in real measurements) but ended up many hours later in Scotland. It was a true story. Although he was completely lost he kept driving in the vain hope that somehow everything would work out in the end. When asked why he didn’t stop and request directions from someone, the man said, “Well, I thought I’d find my way eventually.”

I’m guilty of being a man and I rarely ask for directions either. But in my case there’s a rational reason for this reluctance to seek assistance.

No, really, I mean it: a rational reason. Stop laughing in the back and pay attention because I’m going to explain why.

A long, long time ago when I was slightly less ancient (just after they invented the concept of latitude and longitude) I used to ask people for directions. I’d say something like, “Excuse me, how do I get to Ship Street from here?”

The person I was asking would reply along the lines of, “Oh, that’s easy! Keep going until you see what used to be the Post Office building and then take the next left. You can’t miss it!”

Naturally, everyone who’d lived in that town for twenty years or more knew that the totally nondescript building that is now a coffee shop used to be the Post Office building. Obvious, really.

But then comes the best part: even if I stopped to ask someone, “Excuse me, can you show me what used to be the old Post Office building?” I’d still have no chance of reaching Ship Street.

That’s because the next left would actually be the fourth left. The person giving me directions was thinking about the first left they would take, and was not thinking about the fact that there are actually three prior left turns.

After a few such experiences it’s only natural that I decided to rely on a map and compass rather than ask fallible humans for directions. Sooner or later I’d have killed someone and that would have led to a diet of horrible prison food. As I care about what I eat, not killing someone for giving me atrocious directions seemed the wiser choice.

I then learned that maps and real-life streets part company when it comes to one small but rather important factor: street names.

Maps show streets and they show the names of the streets. What could be simpler?

Unfortunately many towns remain entirely unconvinced by the notion that a traveler ought to be able to determine their location by means of reading street signs. Unencumbered by the burden of knowing where I was, I used to be free in those long-ago days before GPS to wander happily for hours in merry search of something that would confirm my approximate location.

The ultimate example of this joyful experience was when back in 1998 I arrived at Boston airport at 22.00, collected the rental car, put my infant son into his carefully-secured car seat, and set off to find an address in nearby Winchester. Not a single street sign or name was evident during the following 45 minutes of driving around in pitch darkness looking with increasing desperation for any kind of street sign or name.

Finally, with my son hungry and tired in his car seat, I saw high up on a metal pole one of those old-fashioned weather-vane style street name indicators. I was aiming for Washington Street. Sure enough, there was the name Washington Street on an old iron vane, pointing due west. Pointing due east was Main Street, and pointing south was Skillings Road.

It was a sort of navigational salvation, a directional benediction. A deep sense of relief passed through me. I gave thanks to the invisible gods of place and sign.

And then a light gust of wind blew, and the rusty direction indicators freely rotated thirty degrees.

Needless to say, I purchased one of the very first civilian GPS units after this particular experience and since 1998 I’ve used GPS to find my way around the world. Outside of car-based navigation systems, GPS works best with a map and compass, but for some odd reason US maps rarely have latitude/longitude or universal transverse meridian indicators along the edges, which makes them functionally useless. The British go one better, using an idiosyncratic Ordnance Survey grid which bears no resemblance to anything useful at all.

Personally I think it’s a rear-guard attempt to keep people lost and confused, but it’s not working now that Google Maps is on every smartphone.

Of course even GPS can be turned into a confusing mess. For reasons I will never understand, most people with a car-based GPS choose “forward up” as the default setting. What this means is that the little directional icon representing one’s position on the screen is always pointing straight up. In order to make this possible regardless of direction of travel, the underlying map swings wildly around.

This in turn makes people zombies, passively following the route and having no idea whatsoever where it is leading them. I always use “map view” with north up, so that I can glance at the map and see if I concur with the GPS routing algorithm. There have been a great many times when I have seen that the proposed route is far from optimal; seeing map view means I can see what alternates are available and proceed accordingly.

We’ve come a long way from hoping that “carry straight on and then take the first left” bears some resemblance to the route one actually needs to take. And as GPS algorithms improve, even the mindless “forward up” setting will gradually become less dangerous and fewer people will blindly follow the arrow over a cliff or into a river.

But for my money nothing beats hiking in the wilderness using a laminated topographic map with grid markings, a good compass, and a high-quality GPS unit. The freedom to go in any direction and yet never be lost is intoxicating.

Or, for the more poetically inclined among us, there’s always:

Second star to the right and straight on until morning!

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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