I’m shit at directions. Bekah, my family, or anyone that has ever road tripped with me in any capacity will testify to this. Shit being the only appropriate adjective in this sentence. Any other word you run across in the thesaurus will not accurately capture the essence of my directional depravity in its succinct and wretched glory.

There is a famous moment in Medendorp family lore involving my father, a freshly sixteen-year-old Matt, and a twelve-year-old Brian, all en route to REI on a Saturday morning gear run. These were the days that my dad still fervently hoped that by incessant and random quizzing he could teach me some horse sense. Following BF Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, he believed with certainty that he could shape my brain into a cerebral atlas, innately capable of following North’s magnetic pull.

He was wrong, of course, but he didn’t know it yet.

“Matt, what direction are we going right now?”
“Well, we’re on 1-80, headed towards REI, so I think we must be going South.”
Brian mused for a moment.
“North,” he declared with confidence, “we’re heading North.”
My father’s face broke into a huge grin and he laughed uproariously.
“Haha, NO! We’re headed South! Matthew was right! South on I-80!”

This was followed by some detailed explanation of the sun’s refractory rays, wind speed, and aggressive migratory patterns of sparrows. But it was delivered, not in the lecturnal tones I was so used to, but rather the celebratory tone of victory. I gloated like a good older brother should, but most of my jibes served simply to hide my own complete surprise of victory.

This story is still told to dinner table guests and near strangers for the same reason: it was the only time (out of probably hundreds) that I ever bested Brian in a contest of directions.

The first time I read Travels With Charley I learned, with great delight, that Steinbeck freely admitted to being a terrible navigator. So terrible, in fact, that he becomes lost at the end of his road trip, just a bridge away from home, and is forced to ask a police officer for directions. He then quips that “being born lost, I have no interest in being found.” I’ve taken this on as a geographical mantra and have even considered, on a few late night-ed many beer-ed occasions, of etching it permanently in ink.

In Alaska, we navigated with a compass, a survey map and nothing else. GPS could be used only in dire emergency and to record the exact location of a campsite every night, for state records. Our navigation took the form of wide swathed glaciers held up against topography charts lines, infinitesimal squiggles our brains were tasked with converting to geographical landmarks. We learned to read our surroundings in topographical relief, pinpoint our location through three known or assumed landmarks, to check our positions before trudging down foggy cliffs. I thought that with just enough studiousness, an attentive compass, and a little bit of luck, I’d be able to trudge along in relative competence. And to my great surprise, it worked! One day, while at the navigating helm, I trail-blazed a backcountry route to our destination a full two hours ahead of all the other groups. A swollen river and a stumbled upon, run-down horse path stacked the cards in my favor, but it was hard to argue with the results. Basking in the rays of some rare Alaskan sunshine, I munched on a Clif bar. Quietly proud, resolutely determined to pretend I did this sort of thing all the time.

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