Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit lost. No, this isn’t some maudlin post about my existential search for meaning in a world of chaos. Rather, I have been literally lost, in the traditional, geographical sense of the word.
One might think that someone who prided herself on being able to navigate the streets of DC with confidence wouldn’t have problems getting around a town that is, by comparison, small. But, quite the contrary; I keep finding myself turned around. What I try to remember in these moments is that I was perpetually lost when I first moved to DC. The problem, in part, is that I have absolutely no natural sense of direction – no internal compass. It’s true. I can be staring into the setting sun and be unable to tell you what direction I’m facing. When I moved from the Midwest out to DC, I desperately wanted to throw off any small-town stereotype and appear worldly – to look like I fit in and not like a disoriented tourist. Part of that was going to involve knowing where I was going by gaining both a sense of direction and an understanding of the city layout. Fortunately for me, Monsieur L’Enfant really knew what he was doing. It didn’t take too long of staring at the map (and yes, this was when most people still used physical maps and not their smartphones) to figure out that there was a system. I can now present to you Amanda’s Brief Guide to Navigating DC (patent pending). The east-west streets are letters running in alphabetical order, the north-south streets are numbers, and there is a four quadrant grid. It sounds complicated, but so long as you know a letter, number, and portion of the quadrant, you’re set. Oh, and there are streets named after states, but those are confusing, so just stay off them at all costs and take the long way around. Sadly, nothing in life is ever really as simple as it seems. Sure, I now knew that if I was on D Street and wanted to get to L Street, I needed to walk north, but which direction was north?! You’ll recall from a few sentences earlier that I lack any internal compass, so deciding which course (left, right, straight) would correspond to the appropriate cardinal direction was virtually impossible for me. It was further complicated by the metro system. I’d emerge from the dark tunnel and any grasp I’d had on direction had disappeared, right along with my confidence. That first summer, I asked for a compass for my birthday thinking that this would solve the problem – I could casually glance down at the compass, the arrow would point which direction I wanted to go, and I’d be on my merry way. Turns out, I do not know how to use a compass. In the end, my Guide to Navigating DC involved a lot of walking up to the next block, realizing I’d gone the wrong way, and then pretending I’d forgotten something very important that necessitated me turning around and speed-walking back the way I’d just come. With enough finesse, you can make trial and error look just like confidence.
So, it should not have come as such a shock to me that my initial understanding of Frederick’s streets was just as poor. Sure, downtown is easy because it is essentially the grid system to which I’d grown accustomed. But take me out of that small area, and I’m hopeless. Not too long after moving to town, I was out shopping and decided that, rather than going back exactly the way I’d come, I’d turn the opposite direction out of the parking lot and see where that road took me – maybe it’d be a nifty short cut. But 20 minutes and several panic-stricken turns later, I realized I had no idea where I was going and might actually be driving in circles. (Hadn’t I seen that RiteAid before? How many RiteAids can this town possibly have?!). I saw New Design Road, a street name that I recognized, and thought I should probably turn onto it, but which way? Not knowing if I was south, west, or next door to my house, nor which direction this street seemed to be running, it was just a shot in the dark (no really, it was dark by this point). I pulled over to try to use to use my phone’s Google maps, but my GPS wasn’t registering. It turns out that my proficiency with Google maps is about as pathetic as my mastery of the compass. I have no idea how I eventually got home, I’m just grateful that I did and that my fib of “yep, that shopping trip took longer than expected” didn’t raise any red flags.
Getting lost in a relatively safe city in a car with plenty of gas and a cell phone isn’t really such a big deal. A few deep breaths, perhaps a question to a friendly stranger, and you’re home in no time. But not too long ago, on one of our freakishly hot September days, I decided it would be a good idea to go out for a jog and try a new running route to explore neighborhoods I hadn’t seen before. Eventually, of course, I was hot and thirsty and wanting to go home, except it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t been paying any attention to where I was going – I’d been jogging along, lost in my thoughts, maybe even mentally composing this little post. In an effort not to panic and either collapse of heat stroke or just sit down and cry, I convinced my body to jog up to a street off in the distance that looked fairly sizeable – surely I could get my bearings from that. But, it was unmarked, at least as far as I could see (I run without my contacts in) and after a wild guess and a couple of blocks to the right, I realized the situation was not improving. Now in full panic and having psychosomatic heat stroke symptoms, I decided the best course of action was to turn around and attempt to backtrack as best I could, eventually walking home when I ran out of steam.
So, yeah, I’ve been feeling a bit lost, and maybe this is a maudlin post after all. As I reflect, I find myself baffled (at best). I’ve lived in this city for 10 months, why does this keep happening?! I haven’t been in danger, just demoralized. To me, it seems this little problem is a reiteration of the fact that this town is not fully my home yet.
I think it may be time to resort to a tried and true tactic – to break out a paper copy of a city map (assuming that they even make these anymore) and start trying to find meaning out of the chaos. Maybe with enough diligent study, I can soon present Amanda’s Brief Guide to Navigating Frederick (patent pending).