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Spare Parts: Which way is up?

By Ernie Copper

Lately I’ve felt obligated to pass along some common sense to those younger riders looming in my rearview mirror. It isn’t that they don’t have any common sense of their own; some just don’t have much of it about things that were common a generation ago. Not things like how to build a canoe from a hollowed-out log, but other relevant things like directions. The latest reinforcement of this was prompted by a discussion with one of my contemporaries when we were discussing the location of a piece of property. One of the cornerstones of this conversation included this sentence: “If you’re going up, it’s on the left.”

That phrase felt normal to me and the other party involved. I know that the giving and taking of direction is a dying art, rendered less important specifically by GPS systems, but the art has more than faded from the landscape. It’s all but disappeared.

The phrase “if you’re going up, it’s on the left” has nothing to do with elevation changes. It has to do with the concept that “up” is known to be north among people of a certain age, like myself. Most maps of the United States are “north oriented” which is to say that north is up, or at the top of the map. It was the case with that big map of the U.S in the front of Ms. Atwell’s first grade classroom and has been ever since. Since that day it has come to my attention that many younger people haven’t a clue where things are located relative to their location. If that’s you, today’s your lucky day. You’re going to get some basic tips in navigation. Not the kind of information Galileo used to chart the stars and sail the seas level in formation, but basics.

First, the sun really does rise in the east and set in the west. If you’re traveling and unsure of your orientation, get up early and look for where the sun comes up. That’ll be east. Where it disappears at night will be west. Without fail. With that as a starting point, if “west” is on your left and “east” is on your right, “north” will be in front of you and “south” behind you. So, if you’re in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and want to get to Boston, Massachusetts, you need to go north and east, a.k.a. northeast. Either north or east will do to get started, just don’t go south or west.

Equally lost in the shuffle these days seems to be the fact that our nation’s Interstate highway systems are numbered the way they are for a reason. Even-numbered Interstates, like Interstate 80, run generally on an east/west bias, while odd-numbered Interstates like I-95 run generally on a north/south bias. These roads were designed this way to help you navigate. For example, say you’re in Miami and want to go to the Big Apple. I-95 will get you there. Get on the northbound side in Miami and stay in the northbound lanes until you arrive in New York City. That’s assuming you don’t mind a boring ride. You shouldn’t have to look at your map, errr, excuse me, GPS again for specifics until you near your destination.

Rivers in the United States generally flow from north to south but this is due to elevation, gravity and source, not because it is an indicator of direction. There are several rivers in the U.S. (and elsewhere) that do run south to north. Following a river will typically get you to a city or town, but it’s not safe to assume in which direction you are going based on the direction a river is flowing unless you know a lot more specifics, in which case you would probably know where you were anyhow and not need the river as a guide.

I won’t argue that GPS is convenient and has certainly leveled the playing field for the previously directionally-challenged individual. The exact same people who most appreciated my detailed directions in the past need them the least today. When technology works that’s OK. But what if it doesn’t?

There is an art to being lost and finding your way back. It takes practice. I’ve been truly lost several times in life but have always worked my way back. It takes a little time and can be a bit embarrassing but at least you’ll have the confidence to press on and get to where you need to go.

I don’t hold myself out to you as an expert on directions. I’m no Eagle Scout or cartographer and once I get off the hard roads—a colloquialism for paved roads—I’m likely to need some advice myself. It’s just become obvious to me that many younger riders aren’t working with the same basics when it comes to directions that riders my age and older take for granted. And in a world filled with life hacks it was my obligation to let you know which way was up.

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