North by Northwest

This blog is dedicated to my sister Kim who suggested this topic be covered.

Directions.  You either know them or you don’t.  A majority of American’s do not.  Well that may not be a fair assumption, but to ask someone if something is North, South, East or West of their current location and they will freak out.  Even if their current location is their own home.  They can say the neighbor on the left or right but they have no idea if that neighbor is north of them or south of them.  It is a skill.  A skill you either have or do not have.  I have it.  If you were to ask my mother-in-law I inherited it from my mother – because according to my mother-in-law everything is genetic and inherited (i.e. my son is left-handed because her great-uncle Gusty was left-handed and he’s good at baseball because one of her cousins several times removed played baseball).  When my mom was younger she wanted to be a cartographer (mapmaker) which in the days before Google Maps and satellites was a skilled profession.  She never sat me or any of my sisters down and forced us to memorize maps or mapping or directions.  We just picked it up.  We never went on vacations without a map.  We all knew what direction North or South, East or West was and could describe it as in “our hotel is east of I-65.”  And a little bit of a geeky confession – I love it when you go to State or National Park and they hand you a detail map of their park.

I wonder though how some of the people in America today travel.  I realize Garmin and TomTom have made life easier for many people, my niece included.  My niece would disprove my mother-in-law’s theory.  Her mother is very adept at reading maps, knowing which direction she is heading and which direction she came from.  My niece, on her first trip from Greenwood to Plainfield ended up on Washington Street in front of Hard Rock Cafe and she had been traveling on the interstate.  We discovered the key to her sense of direction on a vacation to Myrtle Beach – she was my navigator which at the start of the trip seemed frightening at best given her previous attempts at navigation.  But I handed her my Garmin GPS and suddenly the light in her head clicked on and she was able to not only navigate but plan routes, find restaurants at the next exit, advise mileage between stops and let us know how many more miles until the next bathroom with ease.  All these years and all she needed was something electronic to make it all click.

But many people have yet to discover the genius of GPS.  These people cannot tell you if they are travelling northbound or southbound on US 31.  Many who also don’t know if they are going northbound or southbound on I-65 – which is truly scary if you think about it.  I can see someone actually saying, “Well I was heading to Canada, got on I65 and ended up in Alabama.”  Actually I know someone who was coming from West Virginia to our neighbor’s house in Plainfield and when she was overdue they called her and asked her where she was and she told them she just saw the sign that said to exit here for Chicago.  She had driven 3 hours north of Indianapolis before she thought something might be wrong.

I’m always surprised when watching the Amazing Race at the number of times a team will come in last simply because they can’t read the map and get themselves from one check point to the next.  It’s a show where the whole idea is you have to find specific locations – how do some of these people not think at some point in the game they will have to look at a map? 

I think this only becomes frustrating when a) you work with the public and direction of travel or a specific location is a key factor in your ability to do your job effectively and b) when you have been able to read a basic map since 2nd grade.  I will admit I have gotten lost a time or two.  I hate that feeling.  I’ve also learned never to travel in south Florida after a recent hurricane because the road signs blow away or are bent beyond recognition and before you know it you’re in Little Havana.  That was before GPS – and a map only does you so much good when you can only see every 4th or 5th road sign.

Just a little advice….. figure out which way is North from where you are and that should help some.  Remember the sun rises in the East and sets in the West if nothing else (which admittedly won’t help you much on a cloudy day).  And if directions totally confuse you, pick up a GPS system or at least a compass it could save your life.

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One thought on “North by Northwest

  1. Thanks! I think this is great, the only other thing to add is when you move in to a new house look at where you are on a map, see what “main” roads are close and which direction you are from them, so I don’t have to ask are you on the same side as the BP gas station or on the other side!

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