I love maps. They are the first way I get to know a new city. Where am I? Where do I want to go? What are the roads in between? Trace it with my finger, draw a rough facsimile on a piece of paper, and grip between my fist and the steering wheel, or hold discretely in my sweaty palm, so I don’t look like a tourist. In the days before I had a smart phone with Google Maps, this was how I approached the task. It worked pretty well, for “out and back” trips, but if I managed to veer from the hand drawn path, I had limited information to go on. Only the hope that I could circle back and somehow find the road I drew again. In those inevitable situations where I overshot the exit, or missed the turn, or couldn’t for the life of me figure out which street was which at the 6-way intersection, I would mutter a curse, and try to adjust.
Eventually, I learned enough to forego consulting the map every time I left the house, but there were still things to learn. In Chicago, addresses on streets west of State will increase as you travel west, and addresses on streets north of Madison will increase as you travel north. This is generally helpful since other indicators of North (moss on the side of a tree?), East (Lake Michigan), or the position of the sun, aren’t always immediately knowable when you’re zooming up a highway ramp, getting honked at by an impatient cabbie, or a dodging a delivery guy on a bike.
Taking the train seems simpler, but despite my best efforts to retain a sense of direction, I found that when I climbed down (or sometimes up) from the train platform to the street, I was turned around. At one of those moments, I looked down and finally saw exactly what I needed, when I needed it: a compass! They’re at every stop, and have probably been there forever, the brainchild of the CTA or the tourism bureau. Inlaid into the sidewalk, a sign pointing North! I probably gaped that first time, and looked like a rube, but then I smiled and marched confidently toward my destination.
Where are these clear signs when you want confirmation that you’ve made the right decisions about life, work, kids? Where’s the app for that? Getting lost on my way somewhere might be exactly when I learn something interesting. What was around the corner, how neighborhoods connected, and what ran parallel to where I thought I was going. A seeming detour or flat tire could be the chance to learn something new and adjust course. I may not need to have a crumpled map in my hand, but I’d like to spy the subtle compass every once in a while.