Relative Location

I’ve always had a terrible sense of direction. The story was that my mother could go somewhere once and remember exactly how to get back. I, on the other hand, did not possess that amazing ability. I knew how to walk to school (basically a straight line), how to get to my best friend’s house (down the street), and how to go to the neighborhood pool (around the corner), but, other than that, getting places without looking at a map or asking someone where to go seemed like a complete mystery.

Once I got my driver’s license, I was stunned at how little I remembered from my mom and dad driving me places. I even used my dad’s old car phone once (remember those?) to get directions to a friend’s house just 15 minutes away. Once my family moved, only about 3 miles away from our old house, I had to re-learn all of my routes. I couldn’t be flexible about where I went, and couldn’t seem to master shortcuts, which meant that it took me forever to get anywhere.

When I studied abroad in Paris, I was relieved that at least my directional challenges could be safely relegated to pedestrian traffic. While in a car not knowing how to get somewhere could be a hazard, as a pedestrian, I could always just sit down and look again at my huge, touristy map. I quickly learned to ask detailed directions in French.

After college, I took a series of road trips across the country, and spent a great deal of time driving around California. I had a huge Atlas that was marked up and well worn with all of the notes I would furiously scribble down at rest stops. I was constantly taking unplanned scenic detours, and spent most of my time trying to find gas stations to ask directions. Once, my friend and I, returning from a road trip from California to DC, even got lost inside the beltway upon our return.

Surprisingly, when I moved to Philadelphia, I somehow innately moved around the city on foot with more of a sense of direction than I ever had before. The city grid, compiled with the two rivers, east and west, and City Hall, gave me confidence that I could never really get lost, well, except if I left Center City.

With the emergence of smart phones, the little sense of direction that I had has been on the verge of going extinct. I remember feeling so confident the first time I traveled with a smart phone. Gone were the days of printing out MapQuest directions beforehand and not knowing what to do if conditions or plans changed. All of a sudden, everything I needed was on my phone. This was also a problem. Soon, I couldn’t go anywhere without typing it into my phone to make absolutely sure I was going the right way. Just like that, my sense of direction vanished.

L, my boyfriend, is a geographer, who swears by relative location. Relative location, in the simplest terms, is the location of one place in relation to something else. When I first heard him mention it, I groaned, being reminded of fruitless searches with my parents and brother to find popular destinations in Maine during parent-camper weekend, looking for red barns and stone walls that were cited as landmarks along the way by the camp directors. Usually, the stone walls and red barns either weren’t there or had moved. Since so much can change in a city or landscape over time, I argued, how could you ever really trust relative location? We’ve clashed about this quite a bit – I always need an address, while he trusts that he knows how to navigate using landmarks to get to where he needs to go.

Of course, as you can probably sense, relative location is going to teach me a lesson. You knew that’s where this was going, right? There’s always a moral to the story, after all.

This week I’m in Victoria, BC, with L, who is taking a course (he’s quite the smart PhD candidate, that one). Since I’ve had a bit of time to explore on my own, I rented a car for more flexibility. It hit me shortly before leaving that I wasn’t going to be able to use my trusty google maps for directions, so I had to rely on a GPS. Undaunted, I assumed the GPS was going to take place of my smart phone for the week.

It’s clearly been a long time since I’ve used a GPS. A GPS, unlike google maps, requires the exact address, and sometimes, even doesn’t recognize the address. Trying to find Esquimalt Lagoon and not being able to find an exact address, I got pretty lost.

So, pulled over on the side of the road in Victoria, with no internet service and no idea where I was, the idea of relative location popped into my head. I pulled up the map in the GPS and clicked on the spot of blue near where I wanted to go, selected go, and within 20 minutes, even after the GPS directions ended, I found my way to the beach.


I could look at what was around me, know the general direction of where I wanted to go, and trust that I could get there.

Maybe trusting yourself is half the battle in the story of trying to get to where you want to go.

So, what if I trusted that I know where I want to go, and it’s just a matter of getting somewhere close to there? What if I relied more on my intuition and less on my smart phone? What if I rewrote my sense of direction story? I would probably be less frustrated, for sure. This week, I’ve managed to make my way quite easily around the city of Victoria without a map constantly telling me where to go. Maybe I could do it in other places, too – knowing that I have my google maps as a safety net.  

I would love to hear from you! What’s your sense of direction story?