Why Do I Get So Lost?

A quest to discover why people’s sense of direction varies so wildly

| January-February 2010

Let me tell you a few things about my relationship with the points of the compass, and then we’ll jump right to the meat of this thing.

At shopping malls, my elder daughter frequently has to tell me where we parked. She is 5.

Once, while visiting Paris, I went out for a jog and got disoriented. Eventually I saw a police officer, and I pulled from my shoe the address where we were staying. “Ah,” he said, nodding. “You want to go back to Paris.”

On a quest many years ago to climb the highest mountain on Vancouver Island, a pal and I got so lost that there was no turning back, because it just wasn’t clear which way back was. It wasn’t clear where forward was, either, except that we’d seen a plane fly in over the ridge ahead, so we went that way. (Did I mention that my pal was bleeding from a head wound?) It was a long shot but—don’t you see?—it was the only shot, because that slot in the horizon was our lone landmark.

I am like Captain Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show, who was so navigationally inept that the crew kept him on a fake bridge, with dummy instruments, so that he’d think he was in charge while the ship was in fact being steered elsewhere. My instincts are reliably wrong—which is as good as their being reliably right. You can take a “gut” reading and—Hello, Cleveland!—go do the opposite.

I tell you this not as a pathetic cry for help, or a claim to a perverse kind of pride, but to try to understand: Why does people’s sense of direction vary so wildly?