You Are Here

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Drop a pin – You Are Here

We all feel lost at times.

I have written here about “getting lost” literally and about “feeling lost” in a figurative sense. I have also written about things being lost – ships, cities and lost worlds, lost days, and even a lost generation,

These posts have been quite popular and that makes me think that the general topic is of interest. I also think people find the articles because they believe, as I do, that getting lost is sometimes the path to getting found literally and in other senses.

Is “finding your way” or getting “back on the path” a literal or figurative process? Both.

I think everyone should learn how to navigate on a hike and avoid getting lost. I don’t mean using GPS. I mean using a map, compass, and landmarks. I have gone into the woods and semi-seriously tried to get lost so that I would have to find my way out. I have read books and even taken a class about finding your way in the woods. I have also gone into the woods in those times when I felt lost in the psychological sense.

My 2009 post called “Getting Lost” is about actually getting lost – in my case it was in the woods – and it is also about a friend getting lost in life.  I said that it was sometimes good to get lost.

I followed up on that post the next summer and I had not been literally lost in those nine months. Part of that was because when I had a GPS, so if I am lost, I don’t feel lost because the GPS voice calmly tells me the next turn and knows ultimately that we will get there.

I went back to the book You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall which partially inspired the original post. The first half of that book is about how our brains experience physical space. It looks at human and animal research into how we get a sense of where we are.

I had mentioned homing pigeons in the post. I didn’t mention that someone did some research where they strapped magnets on them to deliberately throw off their inner compass. It worked by messing up the young homing pigeons – but not the older ones. What should we conclude?

The simple advice always given to remember when you are lost is STOP. We tend to panic, head off in the wrong direction, forget where we came from and many other basic mistakes.

But what I want to come back to today is that other sense of being lost. The feeling lost in your life type of lost.

That 2009 post was about my friend Bill who was forced into retiring and was very lost. He did what too many lost people do. He panicked big time. Headed off in all directions and then ended up sitting on a tree stump crying. He lost his job and with it the direction that his life had comfortably followed for 38 years. He started to reconsider a lot of his life choices – college, job (versus “career”), and maybe some other things he didn’t want to talk about in a diner booth with his wife and my wife sitting there.

Ironically, that night we had gone to the movies together to see Up in the Air. Bill’s wife likes George Clooney. I was reading the book that the film is based on, but somehow it didn’t register with me that the book, film and Bill’s story were all connected. The book/film is about a guy whose job is to fire people. He’s hired by bosses who don’t have the nerve to do their layoffs themselves. Of course, the story hit home with Bill.

My advice to Bill had been that basic lost-in-the woods advice – stop. He thought that after a few weeks, he should have figured out “the right direction” to go, but he was still lost.


I thought he needed to be lost for a while. Sit on that tree stump, look around the place, take stock of his supplies, and even cry a little. When he had an idea of the right direction, he could start walking slowly that way and take careful note of where he had been sitting.

Bill’s story has a nice ending. Or maybe it’s a next chapter. He told me that next summer that he “has never been happier.” He went through all his finances with an advisor, got everything in order and realized he was in pretty good financial shape. A handyman who never had time for projects, he got busy building, repairing, and renovating. He lost 20 pounds was shooting to get back to his college weight. His wife is retired that year. They were planning trips. They were taking care of their two grandchildren a few days a week.

I like how my GPS can tell me “You are here.” It is very comforting. Finding some kind of GPS inside ourselves is not as easy. Maybe someone is strapping magnets on us to mess up the readings. But I identify with those older homing pigeons. I think if we sit down a bit and actually give some time to trying to figure out where we are, we are going to find the direction.

Finding Your Way

navigation map

How much do you rely on GPS, and maps on your phone to navigate? Once upon a time, we didn’t even use paper maps very much. We relied on environmental clues and simple instruments.

I read an excerpt from a book by John Huth called The Lost Art of Finding Our Way and it got me thinking about this topic again.

Huth was kayaking in Nantucket Sound in 2003 when a fogbank rolled in and disoriented him. He didn’t panic because he knew some basic navigation skills and returned safely to shore. But he found out that only half a mile away, two college students in that fog mistakenly turned their kayaks out to sea and died. That day got him into exploring the principles of navigation, from ancient times to modern.

In his book, we learn about how the Vikings used a sunstone to detect the polarization of sunlight. Arab traders learned to sail into the wind. Pacific Islanders used underwater lightning and were able to “read” waves to guide their explorations.

All of us – land dwellers and sea-goers – have lost the ability to make close observations of the sun and moon, tides and ocean currents and weather and atmospheric effects in order to read the planet and find our way.

Lavishly illustrated, Huth’s account of the cultures of navigation gets you into a narrative that is a scientific treatise, personal travelogue, and also a re-creation of navigational history. His premise is that by seeing through the eyes of past voyagers, we bring our own world into sharper view.

An article I found online asks, “Do our brains pay a price for GPS?”   There’s no doubt that GPS is a useful technology, but does using it interfere with our ability to do “mental mapping?”

Mental mapping and spatial memory are what allow us to remember where we have put things in our homes. It helps you to lay out a garden, plan a trip, pack a suitcase, arrange furniture, navigate your neighborhood and an office building.

Can you give clear directions to someone to get to a particular place in your hometown? When I was a kid riding my bicycle all summer, I knew almost every street in my hometown by name and location. Now, I don’t even know all the streets within a mile of my house.

John Huth is a professor and a high-energy physicist, and he teaches a course in “Primitive Navigation” about the rudiments of the analog methods of wayfinding using sun, stars, tides, weather and wind. He certainly is not anti-technology. He is an experimental particle physicist and was involved in the discovery of both the top quark and the Higgs boson, but he questions our reliance on smartphones and GPS.

I ordered his book, which sounds quite encyclopedic in its coverage, touching on astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, and ethnography and telling the ways of early navigators whose lives depended on paying close attention to the environment around them.

Reviewers of the book point out that he is not interested in junking the technology, but relearning the old ways. One reason is that it’s still unclear what losing those old skills has done to our modern brain.

Many of my posts here are about maintaining touch with our natural world, and I would agree that losing our visceral connection to the natural world is a tragic loss with broad repercussions personally and globally.

I doubt that I would find many people of any age who know what “dead reckoning” means or how to use a map with a compass. Would you be able to point out major stars in the night sky and use them to find your way?

I used to teach classes in map and compass and basic land navigation at the Pequest Education Center in New Jersey, but I don’t see any offered anymore. Maybe it’s time to do it again. But are people interested, or are they satisfied with the tech doing the work for them?