You are here. Maybe.

Posted on August 3, 2009


Having one of these in your head isn't all it's cracked up to be.

I have a compass in my head.

Not an actual compass, of course. But if you were to blindfold me, drive me around in circles, then plop me down in a strange place on a cloudy night…well ─ truth is, I’d be pretty annoyed. However, within a few minutes I’d be able to point and say, “This way is north.”

While this sort of thing is somewhat rare for humans, many animals find it as natural as eating, sleeping, and knocking over garbage cans. According to a 2004 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, blind mole rats (which, being blind and all, have a distinct disadvantage in  finding their way around) rely on the earth’s magnetic field to navigate long distances. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill indicates that loggerhead turtles may use a similar navigational technique. Numerous birds, including robins, homing pigeons, and bobolinks likewise appear to employ some kind of internal compass to get from Point A to Point B without ending up at Point Q. Even immune cells have a rudimentary magnetic sensitivity which guides them to the site of invading infections.

So when you come down to it, there’s really nothing unusual about my internal compass. In fact the only difference between me and a blind mole rat (aside from the fact that I’m neither blind, nor a mole rat) is that a mole rat’s internal compass is accurate.

Mine, sadly, is not.

When my internal compass points north it may be pointing east, south, or west. On rare occasion it even points north.

It would be manageable if the bloody thing weren’t so self-confident. “This way is north,” it tells me. “But,” I argue, “there’s a sign pointing the opposite direction that says ‘north.’” “Probably put up by the government,” it responds. “You going to trust the government?”

How can anyone argue with that?

As may be imagined, I spend a lot of time going places I never intended going to. Sometimes, to be fair, this has less to do with a faulty sense of direction than it does a faulty sense of geography, like my trip to Woodstock in the summer of 1969. I found the town all right, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the hundreds of thousands of concert-goers. Fortunately, a kindly Ontario Provincial Police officer explained my mistake.

Generally, however, it’s my wonky mental compass that’s to blame.

While visiting my aunt in Wainfleet when I was about eight, I took her dog, Dino, for a walk in the small nearby woods. These woods were about 100 yards in length, and maybe 50 in width, but once in them I spent an hour trying to find my way out. I finally realized that the solution to my problem was trotting beside me with his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. Feeling like Timmy with his faithful companion, Lassie, I squatted beside the dog, took his head in my hands and said, “Dino, go home!”

It worked. The only difference between Dino and Lassie being that Dino took off at about 60 miles an hour and I didn’t see him again until I finally stumbled out of my tiny wilderness around sunset.

In normal life (that is, the life I spend not traipsing around in unfamiliar wooded areas), I stick to regular routes and my peculiar disability causes little trouble. Moving to a new location, however, always entails a rather confusing period of adjustment. In the first week after moving to Welland with my wife and baby back in the ’70s, I drove to a large discount store we’d noticed the day before. Surprisingly, I arrived without difficulty in about 15 minutes. The trip back, however, took considerably longer, and when I found myself driving past Niagara Falls I began to suspect I’d made a miscalculation.

The one thing that sustains me is the knowledge that I’m not alone in this affliction. In 1938, Richard “Wrong Way” Corrigan set off from New York on a solo flight across the States to California. He landed in Ireland. While many people believe that Corrigan’s “misdirection” was actually a protest against the aviation commission’s refusal to license him for an Atlantic crossing, I prefer to believe that he simply got turned around. And there’s no doubt that Roy Riegels, of the 1929 California Bears, wasn’t protesting anything when he got spun about on the field during a game with Georgia Technical and carried the ball 63 yards towards his own goal line. Fortunately, he realized his mistake just before making a touchdown. Unfortunately, with the ball on the 1 yard line, it didn’t take a lot of skill for the opposing team to complete his play.

More recent examples include Canadian Airlines 737 which, in 1988, managed to land in Churchill, Manitoba when it was scheduled to land 750 miles away in the Northwest Territories. And in 1995, a Northwest Airlines DC-10 bound for Frankfurt Germany, unexpectedly found itself in Brussels, Belgium. Even subway trains occasionally get befuddled, as I discovered one time when a west-bound train left Bay Station on the Bloor line and pulled up a few minutes later at the south-bound side of Museum Station on the University line. “I’m not quite sure how this happened, folks,” said the refreshingly honest driver over the PA system.

In general, though, most people seem to have an almost mystical ability to go where they want to go. It’s humiliating. Sometimes I think people like me should have a support group where we could get together to share our stories and encourage each other. Our symbol would be a broken compass.  We would establish the group along the lines of the 12 Step Program, except we’d probably only have three or four steps, considering that the more steps we have, the more likely it is we’d get lost.

But while it’s a nice dream, I know it’s completely impracticable.

I mean, how would we ever find our way to the meetings?