The Cardinal Directions – Easy for some, difficult for others. In grade school most of us learn them with the word association of Never Eat Soggy Waffles or Never Eat Squishy Worms. The teachers point out that you always move clockwise, and every 90 degrees the direction changes, starting with North at 12 o’clock, East is 3:00, South is 6:00 and West is 9:00. Most people remember some part of this classroom education but that doesn’t actually help when determining which way you are going, since people rarely have a good starting point. Most people also know that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West which is helpful if it’s early in the morning or late in the afternoon… but other than that the sun is mostly just overhead.
I’m lucky. I have what Mindy would call an “absolutely amazing” sense of direction, but I wasn’t born with it. It’s something I learned over time and have perfected with much practice. Way before I could even drive I remember riding shotgun with my dad, jamming out to oldies on 92.5 (this was 1997 and the station wasn’t playing country like it is now) you old timers have to remember the station playing “The greatest hits of the 60’s and 70’s. Beep beep’m beep beep yeah!”
We would be driving along and my dad would ask, “Which direction are we heading?” I would usually first reply, “Not this game again,” but still guess, “East?” It is a one and four chance, but I’d usually be wrong. Instead of telling me the right answer he’d ask, “What road are we driving on?” Usually I would say, “How would I know, I don’t drive.” Yeah I was a smartass, still am I suppose. Then he would tell me, “We are on US 19, and that runs North and South, so which direction are we heading?” Now it was a 50/50 chance and I got that right a lot more often.
This game my father played with me took on many variations as I grew older and closer to driving age. I got wiser and when he would ask which direction we were headed I would ask “Which way is the beach?” I realized it was important to have some kind of reference point. When the game was played this way I got every answer correct and I even started to recognize most of the roads and get those answers right too. When it was finally time for me to get behind the wheel and drive I knew the name of every important road in the Tampa Bay Area and which direction they run without any reference points. I owe my Father a huge thanks for that, and just about everything else when it comes to cars: like teaching me how to change a tire at 9 years old and how to change the oil at 13. We were always a few steps ahead…
At the same time I was learning directions on the road with dad, I was walking around the woods with a map and compass in the Boy Scouts. There are all kinds of unique ways to learn map and compass skills. It starts with simple map reading, setting your map to be oriented correctly using the compass, and finding true north using the magnetic declination difference.
Give a compass to the average person and they may be able to tell you which direction is North. Give me a compass and the declination difference and I’ll conquer the world. I have walked through the woods with a backpack on in the pitch black with a headlamp looking down at my compass and map and bushwacked my way to camp. I have been dropped off in the woods, not told where I was, given a map and compass and told to make it to the X on the map. Using only features from the surrounding area (i.e. rivers, mountains, valleys) and comparing them to the map to determine where I am and what direction and route is best suited to make my way “home”.
This keen sense of direction and my excellent map reading skills has proved very useful to me and my friends over the years. I was tested the other day on Koh Phangan when Mindy and I rented a motorbike to tour the island. You would think the road system on an island would be quite easy- one road around the shoreline. Here? Not so. The whole island is a maze of roads that go inland and in all directions due to the mountainous terrain. Not only that, but one minute the road is paved and then with no notice it turns into dirt, the signs point in all directions, and there is ten ways to get to one place.
I did my normal thing before heading off on the bike: look at the map, memorize a few key points, and put the map away for the rest of the day. Mindy can attest to this, usually it’s no problem; I have even corrected a taxi driver that was taking us the wrong way one time. An hour into the trip we stopped for gas in the biggest city on the island. Upon leaving the gas station I started heading South again, but the road turned East- inland; I noticed this, turned around and took the first turn left – South. That didn’t work either and when I turned around again Mindy asked, “Are we lost?” I replied, “No, I know exactly where we are.”
This is not that “I’m a man, I’m never lost thing.” I’m serious, I was not lost! How can I be lost if I know where I am, right? I was just having trouble getting to where I wanted to be. Is there a term for that? Confused, misplaced, turned around… Well, I’m going to call it exploring, which is what we were doing. Getting back on track was easy, I just went back into town as far West as possible, and then found that road South. No problem. I missed a perfect score on this test but I still came out top of the class. Especially considering while I type this there is a young lad walking around with crutches, filled with 22 stitches and covered in road rash from his motorbike accident yesterday. It is sad but true and happens all too often in SE Asia. Stay tuned for my next blog article, “Motorbike Saftey”.