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Map it!
How can you know where youíre going unless you know where you are?

I was on a bike ride on Sunday with a local cycling group, and as often happens, I fell into a small cluster of slower cyclists who were more interested in chatting and absorbing the amazing scenery than achieving their personal best. None of us had ever cycled in that area before, and the rideís organizer had provided an excellent cue sheet, a turn-by-turn set of directions. In addition, the organizers had painted special arrows on the street marking each turn. There was literally no way you could get lost. About halfway through the ride, the arrows pointed us through a couple of quick turns, and I lost track of where we were on the cue sheet. I asked the man riding next to me what street we were on.

"Oh, I donít know," he replied. "I donít really pay attention to the street names. I donít even know what town weíre in right now."

He might as well have been speaking Mandarin. Sure, I was present in the serenity of the moment too, but I was also carrying a map of Central Massachusetts, a compass, a cue sheet, and a speedometer. I need to know where I am at all times, and I hate getting lost. I like to know which way is up (or north, for those less map-inclined). For a moment, riding there next to Mr. I Have No Idea Where I Am, I started to hyperventilate. Then I spotted the street name on a mailbox (an excellent navigational aid, for you folks prone to getting lost), and quickly ascertained our location on my map and cue sheet.

Ever since I was a child, I have always needed to know where I am relative to where I came from and where I want to go. I have always determined which way was north before setting out, even if it was just to go to school. Some kids had security blankets, I had the North Pole. This location obsession is something that runs in my family. My brother has a Global Positioning System, and he carries it around with him, checking it periodically to see where he is in the grand scheme of things, displayed on several different scales. The first question my sister asked when she and her husband landed in Los Angeles, en route to their new home in Santa Monica, was "Which way is west?" The first time they picked me up at LAX for a visit, I asked the exact same question. My father keeps every single map from every single National Geographic magazine he has ever received.

I do not understand people who get lost all the time. A friend of mine is so directionally challenged that I have seen her get completely, utterly lost just half a mile from her own home. She was so upset by the experience that I thought sheíd consult a map as soon as she got home, and figure out where she lives relative to other places. Yet the incident passed from her mind the minute we made it back to her street. Her inability to form a mental grid of her community, her unwillingness to identify landmarks as we went along, her lack of even rudimentary knowledge of the local street layout ó it was all incomprehensible to me. I wanted to smack her across the face and say, "Pay attention! One day, you might not be able to find your way home again!"

You may think I was overreacting. Yet I have actually been in situations in which I was afraid I wouldnít be able to find my way home again, usually led by outdoorsy friends who claimed they knew the route like the back of their hand, but who were so navigationally inept they couldnít find their ass with back of their hand. Every season, you read about people like them, people who set off into the woods without maps and who get hopelessly lost, their bodies not found until spring. Mother Nature is literally just standing around looking for people who arenít paying attention so she can weed them from the gene pool.

Thatís why I pay attention to my maps. I am the person you sit next to on the flight to London who keeps her personal video screen tuned to the channel that shows where the plane is in its route. I am the person on the sailboat who charts the boatís position every few minutes on the GPS. I am the person who always knows exactly where on the cycling cue sheet she is. If thereís a life-threatening ordeal out there, I will be doing my best to avoid it.

I realize that my map obsession is my way of imposing order and knowledge on a world that is chaotic and unknowable. It gives me some peace and security to try to understand that which can be understood, in the hopes that maybe Iíll spot some trends and patterns that I can use to navigate the scary parts that fall off the maps. Maybe deep down, Iím searching for a map to the road less traveled. But thatís how I am, and if you travel with me, youíd best know the difference between NNE and ENE. If you have a problem with it, Iíd be happy to tell you, accurate to within a few feet, where you can go.

Kris Frieswick can be reached at

Issue Date: September 5 - 11, 2003
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