Finding Your Way Without Digital Technology

GPS-enabled apps have changed things so completely, for the average person with access to a device, that it is surprising to remember GPS only became widely available to consumers around the year 2000. What did we do before we had talking maps in our pockets?

Printed out sheets of instructions from online maps, I guess, and tried to read them while driving and eating Pringles. Before that, we had 10-year old road atlases with mutilated pages in our trunks, or we stopped at gas-stations for free state maps, which we found months after the road trip, wadded up under the seat.

There were also loose guidelines from the pre-GPS world that made it possible to navigate without a map. Cities are built on north-south grids, with avenues (uptown/downtown) and streets (crosstown). Primary interstate highways in the United States have one- or two-digit numbers that are odd or even, depending on whether they run north-south or east-west. Beltway routes usually have three digits that start with an even number (e.g., I-210), so you know they do not dead-end. My mother taught me all this in preparation for driving.

But she also knew I had a relationship with the landscape. It does no good to know that you are going either east or west, if you cannot determine which. Basic orientation to the cardinal directions, mostly by the position of the sun (at different times in different seasons) helps. So does knowing the accommodations of the manmade to geography. The City of Chicago sits in relation to Lake Michigan so that, generally, when your feet start getting wet, you know the city lies to the west.

My mother took me to orienteering meets when I was little, where I got to watch competitors from all over the world run the hills and fields, for time, with only a map and compass. (We saw the Swedish team to the airport, where they waved from the aircraft windows as it took off, headed south, into the wind). I did some orienteering myself, using skills I learned from scouting and playing in the woods with friends.

Navigation was one of my first valuations of water, which you can often smell before you see it, or sense by the drop in temperature, or detect by vegetation and dampness. Water can be followed down a slope so subtle it is invisible, to the sea, where some city on a hill awaits to aid in fortune or help launch a campaign or career.

The military taught more skills: How to read a topographical grid map properly; adjust for magnetic north; find routes that use less energy or provide cover; shoot one long azimuth, not many short ones, for the same reason a long line is more accurately drawn with a long ruler. I learned to miss a destination intentionally, aiming to one side of it, so when I reached the road it was on I knew which way to turn. I even learned, in underwater compass swims in near-zero visibility, to trust the technology of the wrist compass and not my own feelings of being on- or off-course.

Many of these skills have been obviated by more complex technologies, so why learn them now? Sure, devices can run out of juice or lose signal. And sometimes they are wrong. Soothsayers, doomsdayers, survivalists, and preppers have their own reasons. And one cannot deny the attraction of nostalgia. When I was a kid, that meant reading the Foxfire series or the Ed Dodd “Mark Trail” comics; today it is watching YouTube videos on making a swimming pool out of mud, or building a hut with a French-tile roof and radiant heat.

Hershel Parker, one of Melville’s recent biographers, espouses knowing old ways. He says growing up in the first half of the century, in Oklahoma, often without modern conveniences (as we used to call them), even electricity or running water, helped him to understand Melville.


“I knew about reading by firelight and the light from a coal-oil lamp, though not a whale-oil lamp. […] I had traveled in a wagon drawn by a team of horses I had harnessed up myself, and I had ridden horses I had saddled. I knew how to plough and build fences and milk cows. I had walked for hours at night on railroad tracks and dirt roads, without lights, so I knew what it meant for Melville to have, in different decades, crossed the whole of Massachusetts in a stagecoach and then to have crossed the same parts of Massachusetts on a train. […] Perhaps no other American biographer working in the 1990s had as instinctive a sense as I did of changes in modes of transportation in the nineteenth century.”


This is not the only, or even the best, claim to authority, but it means something. Our memes insist it is the journey not the destination, but what does a journey consist of but specific processes, events, and things that become metaphorical? It is all metaphor. Not only about finding one’s way, but for what it means to have arrived—the depth and quality of experience itself.

No app ever taught me triangulation. You have a compass and a map but do not know where you are on it. Off in the distance are two landscape features—a hill to the left and a radio mast to the right—and you manage to find them on the map. You shoot azimuths with the compass to both, draw the reverse angles back from them on the map, and at the intersection of the lines find yourself.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.