Friday, August 5, 2011

Navigational Difficulties

Once upon a time I got lost in Pennsylvania.

If you've driven though Pennsylvania, you may know that large swathes of it kind of all look the same.  It's beautiful, all rolling hills and nice greenways and the exact same gas station in all 46,055 square miles, why, WHY I ask you is it like that, but if you are not sure where you are, it can be a little disconcerting.  I got lost pre-GPS (in my life anyway) and didn't have a Pennsylvania map.  You would think that my Quakerness would come with some kind of inborn Pennsylvania-specific GPS system, but this is not in fact the case.  I threw a Hail Mary pass and called my Dad.  This is how it went.

Me: Dad, I'm lost in Pennsylvania and I don't know what the hell I'm doing.

Dad: Okay, what was the last road you were on?

Me: 84.  No.  81.  Maybe.  Or 78.

Dad: What did the last exit you saw look like?

Me: [describes median and shape of exit.]

Dad: What are you looking at now?

Me: The Pennsylvanian variety of gas station.  It's kind of blue.

Dad: Oh, okay.  Here's what you do.

And then he gave me directions from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, including exit numbers.  There may be slight paraphrasing in here, but the bottom line is that I described my surroundings to him and he managed to give me exit-by-exit directions home.  He used to drive trucks, so he's been all over the place, and appears to have spent much of his time on the road memorizing America's highway infrastructure.  This is both awesome and useful.

I've inherited a lot of Dad's traits, but the navigational skillz are not on the list.  I rarely know what street I'm on, and this includes streets in Worcester, where I've spent the vast majority of my driving life.  If you ask me to give you directions, I will force you to navigate by trees and sculptures.  This is totally confusing to Dad.  Now, he is a strong believer in forcing you to work your own shit out.  At one point in high school when he was trying to force me to work out navigation at the kitchen table before I went somewhere, I snapped, grabbed a piece of paper, and sketched something like this:
No, it's not some kind of black magic diagram.

This was my explanation of how I understand American public planning.  What this indicates is that there is one path from my house to various locations I frequent, the paths never cross, and I don't know what I'm passing through on my way.  This does add a certain excitement factor to driving, because I occasionally pass one of my known landmarks on my way to another known landmark and get all excited about this newfound knowledge.  Over time, I've gotten better at navigation, but I still rely on a GPS if one's available, because occasionally my brain snaps back into "AND THERE IS NO OTHER PATH" mode and I immediately get lost.

The genetics, they are strong...but they can't save me.


  1. I love that. Your map makes perfect sense to me. My Dad also never understood how I could not find my way around SF via traditional navigation cues, though I did grow up there using public transit and eventually driving. If it wasn't near something I knew (school, friend's house, movie theater, etc) I couldn't find it. I still can't find new places in SF, and when I have to I prefer to walk so I can study the map very carefully. I think GPS is evil, because it is slowly making me forget how to find anything.

    So is this, a gatherer thing? Or just a map-impaired thing?

  2. Duh! Get a map at every single one of those gas stations after asking what county you're in.

  3. @PS, I'm actually pretty good with maps, it's orienting myself in them outside of thinking about where I'm going that seems to give me trouble. Like, if I have my car keys in my hand and am thinking "okay, off to CVS," then someone asks if I can pop by Target, I will have to think a little bit about how to make that happen. If I HAVE a map, like if I had followed Kate's advice up there and popped into a gas station to get a map, I would have been able to figure it out. It's kind of a weird thing. It HAS been improving as I get older, though, which helps.