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Whom do you trust to get you from here to there?


There are, as everyone knows, two kinds of people in the world. Those who give good directions and those who think they do.

This reality comes into play in August when many of us travel and thereby run a good chance of getting lost. Once we are outside our home turf, we often rely on the navigation skills of relative strangers to tell us where to go next.

There is a lot of opinion and emotion wrapped up in directions. Routine parts of my summer experience have been tension-filled family car trips and subsequent sessions with relatives gathered around the kitchen table arguing about the route I should have taken.

Also figuring in the equation is the communication, or lack of it, between the driver and the navigator. A typical on-the-road exchange in our car goes something like this:

Driver: Do I turn left here?

Navigator: That's right.

Driver: What! Left or right?

Navigator: I told you, left.

Driver: That is not what you told me.

Navigator: You just missed the turn.

Nowadays computers may figure in the direction-giving business. I find that while these types of directions can be helpful, the immense amount of detail they provide can be ludicrous.

As Nick Paumgarten pointed out in "Getting There," an article in the April 24 issue of The New Yorker, MapQuest and Google give the same weight to stretches of road that are one block or a thousand miles long. Moreover, he said, if you lose your way using this itinerary, you have no idea where you are because you have no sense of how the directions you are using fit into the larger picture.

They also can be wrong. My favorite computer-generated fiasco happened this spring in England. There a woman drove her car into a stream because her "sat/nav" (satellite navigation) system told her to. The English newspapers had photos and hilarious stories.

I prefer to get my directions from a reliable relative. Finding one can be tricky. I have to discreetly determine which relative knows what he or she is talking about. Then I have to commit to following the advice of that person, and that person only. At most family gatherings, there are as many suggested routes as there are relatives. Egos can be bruised and feelings hurt when you don't use someone's shortcut.

There are traits I look for in a dependable navigator. One is that he or she must sound convincing. They can't contradict themselves, saying for instance, "Take the Beltway. No wait! Don't take the Beltway, take Route 40." If your navigator is not sure how to get there, you won't be either.

A skilled navigator can also successfully put down any competing routes. Last weekend for instance, when I was sitting in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in the western suburbs of Chicago, I overheard an excellent demonstration of this technique.

Two men, one a local and one from out of town, were discussing how to get to a park where members of their clan, the Smiths, were holding a family reunion. One set of "official" directions had been issued, but the local man disapproved of them as too complex and offered a rival route. He persuaded the out-of-towner to follow his path by stressing its simplicity and by subtly undermining the groupthink process that formed the "official" directions. "You know two people can't talk at the same time," he said. "You can sing at the same time, but can't talk at the same time."

A good navigator also uses permanent landmarks such as stoplights, bridges and railroad tracks, in laying out a route. The word "permanent" is crucial especially in this town where, as my friend Neil Kahn points out, the natives tend to give directions by citing defunct establishments as landmarks. "Go out Eastern Avenue and turn where Haussner's used to be," or "Go to North Avenue where Nate's and Leon's used to be" are common ways that directions are offered here, said Kahn, 49, who grew up in Baltimore. His parents, he said, give directions by citing the spots where streetcars used to turn around or where "Dr. Abrams' office used to be." There is an assumption in Baltimore, Kahn said, that you are supposed to know that kind of geographic detail.

Finally, good navigators have a good sense of direction. I have found that a quick indication of whether people can be trusted to plot your path is how they answer one question: What direction does their house face? If they don't know north from south, or east from west, chances are not good they can get you to the Atlantic Ocean.


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