Directionally challenged need an extra set of senses

Friday, August 31, 2007 | 12:18 p.m. CDT; updated 5:13 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — My brother Mark has a T-shirt that says, “Not all who wander are lost.”

I’m here to tell you that some of us are. And often.

It was Sunday night. I was driving back from a trip to Minnesota and had just taken Interstate 35 through Des Moines. My hosts had told me to zip on down 35 and then pick up 70 East to Columbia. But before I had left, a friend had e-mailed me and advised me to pick up 63 and take it down to our town. That sounded more appealing. I just couldn’t face swinging west to Kansas City, only to head east again.

But there was a slight hitch in my plan: I couldn’t find 63.

So I turned off I-35, planning to cut over to 63 and ended up … on a series of gravel roads curling ever deeper into the rolling Iowa countryside. Deer sprang merrily across the lane ahead of me. One unpromising road led to another even less promising as the sun drifted lower into the horizon.

Still, the compass on my rearview mirror helped me meander onto a paved road leading into Osceola. I checked the map. For all the miles I’d traveled, I’d made little progress toward Missouri — or away from 35.

But at Osceola, I picked up Iowa 5, a real road that took me east through Chariton, Russell, Albia and Ottumwa, where wonder of wonders, I found 63 South. At 12:30 a.m. I rolled into my driveway, having stretched an eight-hour drive into 10.

I’d like to say this has never happened before. I’d be fibbing. One time, I was sent from the news office in Brussels to a Dutch newspaper in Heerlen, Netherlands, to see printers put together the European edition of the Wall Street Journal. The trip was supposed to take 80 minutes. It took me more than 3 hours, and three countries, to get there. I was so lost in the eastern part of Belgium that I gave up and made for West Germany because I knew how to get to Heerlan from there. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

My parents do not have these problems. They’re effective navigators. My dad just has to go to a place once, and he can remember the route forever. Mom and Dad are both good at figuring out shortcuts. Alas, the Directional genes on their DNA didn’t pass to me.

I’ve been thinking it over and figured out what you need to be a good pathfinder, besides having a GPS thingie in your car, is five senses. I mean, besides the normal five.

1. Obviously you need a sense of direction. Knowing up from down is a good place to start, and usually I know that much. However, I’ve been lost in buildings before, so maybe I don’t know the basics. Start throwing out north, south, east, west, and I have to look for cues. Tell me to go left or right or give me landmarks when you’re telling me where to go — yes, even to that place — and I’m much more likely to get there.

2. You need a sense of where you are. This also may seem obvious to everyone, but it’s not to those of us who are lost. If I knew where I was, I wouldn’t ask for directions, now would I?

3. You need to have a sense of where you’ve been and where you’re going. Ditto. And feel free to see this as a metaphor for life. I do.

4. You need a sense of proportion. This may not seem as obvious, but it’s a valuable talent to have. If you know it’s way too soon to be turning left, then you’re not as likely to fool yourself into making a wrong turn. And that’s where I get into a lot of trouble. I often make turns too early or too late because I have no feel for how far I’ve traveled. It’s not as if I could use, oh, the odometer to help me out on this. That would make so much sense. Which brings us to ...

5. You need to have sense. Period. That would be the wisdom to stay on 35. Or the smarts to turn around as soon as I hit that gravel road. Or I could break down and buy a GPS thingie.

Something tells me I’ll still be lost, just more efficiently.

Mary Lawrence teaches editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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