Common Sense Direction

In the age of satellite positioning

By Deborah Salomon

“I don’t have GPS.”

The young woman whom I asked for directions to her house sounded startled, even shocked. I could have announced “I don’t wear underwear,” with less reaction.

GPS is my line in the sand. I don’t have it because I don’t need it. I own a functioning brain — not that getting from point A to point B is rocket science. I have experience. Also what used to be called a “sense of direction,” meaning the most-times ability to point north or south, east or west, by looking up, by memory, or by instinct.

I figure this might come in handy if the Russians or the Martians capture the satellite that tells folks to turn right at McDonald’s.

“So, how do you find places?” she asked.

“A map.”

Not online maps. Paper maps that convey the bigger picture. A map lays out where you start, where you end, everything in between — especially useful when traveling long distances. A map allows selecting alternate routes, or scenic detours. A map doesn’t malfunction, leaving you lost and desperate, especially in an area lacking cell service.

This, like everything else (according to Freud), started in childhood.

New York City is laid out on a grid, with numbered streets. A subway map and a modest sense of direction suffice.

When I was 10 we moved to Asheville and, for the first time, we had a car. Trips were few but before each my job was to pore over maps (free at gas stations, along with windshield washes) to plot the journey. Once underway, while my parents bickered over this and that, I navigated. What fun! I learned that a legend wasn’t necessarily a folk tale, that highways were represented in different colors according to number of lanes and access, and that one inch represented X number of miles so I could estimate distance with a ruler.

How important I felt.

At 16 I became both navigator and driver, often alone, on short trips and long. Before leaving I would plot my course and write the steps on white cardboard with black marker, to prop against the dashboard. I still do, whether the distance be 60 miles or 600. When MapQuest happened, I tried it. You wouldn’t believe how often it’s incomplete or just plain wrong, whereas the stars and planets, on a clear night, aren’t.

I never got that far but gained new appreciation for explorers who sailed uncharted waters with planetary guidance.

Yo, Columbus! Way to go, Marco Polo!

Magnetic compasses weren’t invented until two centuries B.C.; still, you don’t see ancient Egyptians or Greeks wandering around, lost.

Getting back to GPS … seems like certain electronics rob us of actions that develop senses and sensibilities. Nowhere is this more evident than at an airport, where 99 percent of passengers are hooked up to one or more devices, thus missing the world’s greatest people-watching. Security personnel warn “See something, say something.” Fat chance. I’d wager Brangelina and their six kids — let alone a suspicious man wearing hoodie and dark glasses, carrying a rifle case — could waltz through LaGuardia unnoticed.

Fitbit, the latest must-have, may create an obsession, like people who weigh themselves after every meal. Here, gimme your wrist. I’ll take your pulse, and you can too, with a watch that has a second hand and, after a little experience, not even that.

Of course I can’t count your steps, order pizza, spit out text messages or baseball scores.

GPS has also withered another skill: giving directions. Few folks estimate distance correctly. “Go about a mile down the road and turn left at the school bus crossing,” was actually less than half a mile with nothing indicating a school bus which, in that neck of the woods, stops at almost every house. Then, “go right at the church on the corner” in a rural area where every corner has one church, sometimes two.

Traveling snowy, muddy Vermont backroads I was directed to “take the dirt road at the Y and we’re about five minutes from the burned-out barn.”

Five minutes at what speed?

I can’t count the times I’ve been directed to turn the wrong way onto a one-way street. Rotaries are impossible: “It’s the second exit not counting the one you’re at.”

Compared to these, the classic “bridge too far” seems helpful.

“Sense” of direction is different, mostly instinct. Animals travel miles to get home. I once captured a pesky raccoon and relocated him a few miles away, in a lovely wooded area. The next morning, he was, as usual, raiding the bird feeder. Can you retrace your steps, in reverse, in an unfamiliar city? Does your brain automatically absorb and store landmarks? A disturbing study just published indicates that the earliest sign of Alzheimer’s might be disorientation and inability to navigate familiar environs. We are told the importance of keeping the brain alert as we age. Maybe that means besides watching Jeopardy! we shouldn’t delegate common functions to electronic surrogates.

Not that they’re all bad. Heaven knows, without the horn beeper on my car key I’d be walking home from the supermarket just about every day.

But at least I’d know which way to walk.  PS

Deborah Salomon is a staff writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at

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