It's possible to train a sense of direction into you.
First 11 to 12 years of my life, I had no sense of direction. North, south, east and west were nebulous concepts and I kept not being consistent about them. Could've been worse; I could've confused left and right, but I remembered that kindergarten lesson about left and right, no problem. Still, direction and I weren't friends, and it got worse the farther I was from home. Going to Portland to visit family -- both sets of grandparents lived in the Concordia neighborhood, and wherever we lived we'd visit Oregon once or twice a year -- I'd get completely turned around. I seriously thought south was north and west was east. Headed from NE Portland to downtown (in the west part of Portland), I'd be looking at the West Hills and Forest Park and wondering Why don't I see Mt. Hood? ...while Mt. Hood was behind me. Maybe also behind clouds, but NOT ALWAYS.
I was a walker from early on. Reading the previous paragraph and then reading that, you may think this was a recipe for disaster, but no, I don't remember getting massively lost as a kid. I just knew routes, whether it was the walk from our Rancho Bernardo, CA home to my school for kindergarten and first grade or it was the route from our later Camarillo, CA home to the stores and arcade I frequented. But as late as Virginia Beach, where I lived from summer 1982 to fall 1984, and which wasn't as walk-friendly a place because it was so big -- though I still did plenty of walking, just mostly around the lakes in my neighborhood -- I couldn't wrap my mind around spatial relations if the distances were measured in tens of miles. And lots of things in the Tidewater area are measured in tens of miles. The whole freakin' town is a suburb.
Somehow, in the mid-1980s when I reached the suburbs of Northern Virginia, the last area we lived in before Dad retired from the Navy, I picked up a map. We had the big ADC maps of Northern Virginia and of the District of Columbia and its immediate surrounding area. I got really interested in how people got around that region -- which has complicated commute patterns that are best summed up as "going from everywhere to everywhere" -- and how new roads were being built to accommodate all those people. And, in the process, I developed a better sense of how you got from place to place. It was almost inadvertent; I just got to thinking that maps were neat.
(I even learned, eventually, that there was a reason maps didn't always match reality. When we moved to a neighborhood off of Stuart Mill Road, a glorified cow path winding through a part of Oakton, VA, I noticed the map had a couple of roads off of Stuart Mill Road that didn't exist. I even wrote to ADC to mention it. Years later I found out that often map makers will put nonexistent roads on their maps so they can copyright them as original works -- and also can see what other places use their maps. Soooooooooooo if that use is without permission, they have legal recourse to ask what's up with that.)
I had years of map-studying experience by the time I learned to drive. Getting my driver's license in spring 1990, I USED that knowledge. (And had a car accident a mere month into having a license, which led to its own drama, but that's another post. Still, a lesson that I needed to be A BETTER DRIVER.) Directional know-how was needed in suburbs where you need to drive to everything.
I bring this up because my sense of direction failed me yesterday. Nothing bad happened, it was more surprising than anything, but hey: I used to have no sense of direction.
Yesterday afternoon I took a long walk. Which has Stephen King connotations for me now, but I'm not being followed by armed men and cameras, so it shouldn't. I walked through downtown -- I stopped at Big-Ass Sandwiches, but circumstances that had greatly annoyed Lisa and Brian Wood meant that they were closing just as I got there, so I had lunch at Aroy Thai instead -- then hopped the Max to the Washington Park-Oregon Zoo stop. I felt like seeing trees and views, and Washington Park is both a plant collection (it has several test gardens and name labels on many of its trees) and up on hills. I saw a map, saw several possible paths, and got walking on one. No particular place to go. I was mainly by myself, though as always there were a fair number of people. At at least one moment, I tried seeing these woods the way E.T. would've seen them, briefly making it look more exotic in my mind. (The park does have trees imported from many regions.) Path to path, directional shift followed by directional shift, and...
And at one point, what I thought was west turned out to be north.
I reached a clearing with a horizon view, and my first thought as I looked towards that chunk of the horizon was Oh, Tualatin River Valley -- that's where Beaverton, Hillsboro and the home of Nike are -- but the view included, mostly hidden by clouds, the hint of a taller mountain than you'd see when looking west of Portland. Oh, I corrected, Mt. St. Helens. So that's the Vancouver area. Soon after I found a map, and found that I'd eventually been trending east instead of trending north as I'd thought.
I don't have as much experience getting around Washington Park as I have other parts of Portland. And the road grid that's helpful in sorting out east-west and north-south in Portland doesn't fit into the West Hills.
With the recalibrated picture of Washington Park in my head, I started heading down the hills and back to downtown. No drama resulted. I even ran into a cop who had picked up a small snake while patrolling one of the reservoirs up in the park, and we visited briefly. He showed off the snake to me and to a tourist couple who were figuring out their own directions. The cop pointed me in the right direction, and I kept going in the right direction to leave the park. I experienced not only more woods, but unexpectedly saw the Zoo Train. I looked down and saw the tracks, and thought Hey, how 'bout I wait until the next train goes by? No, I have no idea how long I'd have to wait, and RIGHT THEN one of the trains, the Zoo Liner, went past! I waved to the riders like the silly person I am, or at least can be.
It was a good walk on a good day. I saw bicyclists, playground-enjoying kids, and skateboarders snaking down the park's winding roads while kneeling low on their boards for less wind resistance and better balance. I cheered them on. And my sense of place, which aids my sense of direction, was restored when I sighted and then walked under the Vista Bridge. From there, getting around was easy.
Here's to good walks, even when you don't know where you're going.