The Foggiest Idea

Is global positioning contributing to our general sense of lostness? One British navigation nerd thinks so.

A 2008 survey conducted by Nokia found that one in four people could not get around "without online maps and mobile satellite navigation."     Photo: Matthias Ritzmann/Corbis

ON A CLEAR, bright late-October morning, a young medical student named Jason Rasmussen arrives at a trailhead in the vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota. He's planned a three-day solo hike along the 26-mile, circular Pow Wow Trail, tempted by a guidebook's promise of "remote bedrock lakes, beaver dams, and cascading creeks."

Rasmussen is an experienced hiker and carries a passel of equipment, including map and compass. The path before him is wide and clear, but its clarity is deceiving. As he walks, not looking at the map, he misses his turnoff and follows an old logging road deeper into the forest.

From here, Rasmussen compounds his error. As he unknowingly heads in the wrong direction, the path soon expires. Thinking he can find it again, he walks off in what he assumes is the right direction. While he can confirm his heading with a compass, he can't be sure of his actual location. Anxiety festers. He hacks through overgrown bush. He loses his map. He loses himself. Ten days later, after an extensive search that reaches the "cadaver dog" stage, Rasmussen, frostbitten and on the verge of death, is found.

Rasmussen's story—which took place in 2001 and which I came across in Cary Griffith's gripping account, Lost in the Wild—represents the extreme end of a common human experience: getting lost. The fear of losing our way is a deep and ancient one, says neurologist Colin Ellard, who writes in his book You Are Here of the "fragile grasp that we human beings have on our sense of implacement, our knowledge of where we are, our spatial relationship with the objects that surround us, and the movements we need to make to reach them."

One can easily critique Rasmussen's mistakes, but the larger lesson is that it is almost absurdly easy for humans to get lost. A few years ago, a group of scientists from several universities set subjects loose in two very different environments: the Sahara in southern Tunisia and the Bienwald forest, in western Germany. The subjects, tracked via GPS, were asked to walk a straight course. When the sun (or the moon) disappeared behind clouds, subjects began to veer. Looking at the GPS-traced patterns later, the researchers noticed something remarkable: the subjects had begun to walk in circles. Some even returned to the start.

What had happened? Was it the result, as some biologists have speculated, of a "biomechanical asymmetry"—i.e., that one of our legs is typically shorter than the other? In an article in Current Biology, the scientists argued instead that participants were in essence taking a "random walk." Rather than a "systematic bias in direction," people were experiencing "accumulating noise" in their sense of the "subjective straight ahead." Like Rasmussen, they tried to correct an initial drift, but without a fixed reference point, their corrections led them farther astray. The process resembles what engineers call "graceful degradation," in which systems continue to function in the face of failures.

In other words, even as they're getting lost, people don't realize they're getting lost.

I'VE LATELY COME to the realization that my whole sense of direction has been slipping away. Almost by rote, I find myself plugging familiar destinations into my car's GPS; looking for the quickest route in real-time traffic, I console myself. Even walking around Manhattan, with its north–south grid, I sometimes catch myself using Google Maps to orient myself upon emerging from the subway. And I'm certainly not alone in my increasing dependence on electronic navigation. A 2008 survey conducted by Nokia found that one in four people could not get around "without online maps and mobile satellite navigation."

Journalist Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that "someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory." He's describing the increasing difficulty he has in following traditional long narratives in an age of hyperlinks and telegraphic dispatches. (Let us all pause here to update our Twitter accounts.)

And I, too—as I stare down at my iPhone and that bewitching blue ball that marks my progress in Google Maps—worry that some ineluctable force is changing the way I see the world, altering my very relationship to the environment around me. I am seeing very precisely mapped trees but wonder what is happening to the forest. I'm becoming metaphysically lost. It's this feeling that draws me to the tiny town of Ivybridge, in the southwestern corner of England, in September to meet Tristan Gooley, a 38-year-old British former travel outfitter and the second person, after the late adventurer Steve Fossett, to have sailed and flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Gooley, despite having mastered the daunting alphabet soup of modern navigational technology (AIS, ILS, ADF), found himself fascinated by the navigational cues of the pre-instrument days: everything from dune formations to the position of Venus. Unable to shake the obsession, he turned it into a profession, launching a school of natural navigation in 2008, followed by a book, The Natural Navigator, which will be published in the U.S. in January. "A fundamental human skill was disappearing," he writes, "as efficient and ubiquitous technology came to dominate our understanding of what it means to find our way."

In an age when small devices plucking signals from the Clarke Orbit instantly position us, why would we rely on, say, the patterns of the nao bangaki—refracted big ocean swells—as the Gilbert Islanders have long done to detect the presence of far-off land? And yet "primitive navigation" is a phrase that insults, to name just one other tradition, the legendary seafaring prowess of the Polynesian navigators. In East Is a Big Bird, the anthropologist Thomas Gladwin describes the ability of a navigator on Puluwat, a Pacific atoll, to detect reefs: "[He] could work with discriminations I not only could not perceive but could scarcely conceive."

Navigation in this sense is not simply a matter of getting from A to B. Navigation is also cultural, a story told of our engagement with place.

This, in essence, is what Gooley's work is about. Natural navigation is a "complementary thing," he says at the Ship Inn pub in Ivybridge. He tells me that, when crossing the Atlantic, "I didn't sit there and think my best chance of getting to the Caribbean in one piece was going to be by re-creating the Micronesian legends, spending five days studying the swell. I use a lot of conventional navigation, but I'm trying to introduce the idea that the world is more interesting and richer and deeper if you don't let the map and compass get between you and the journey."

To prove his point, on the trip to the pub he entered the postal code into the (little-used) sat-nav in his Range Rover. "I don't feel as if I had any ability to shape that journey at all," he says. "It's almost as if we'd been teleported." And, indeed, I scramble fruitlessly to recall anything about the journey, save its endpoint. This is the insidious thing about GPS. While Gooley chides map-and-compass courses for doing a "bloody good job of stamping all the romance" out of navigation, those instruments at least require and assume a certain working knowledge of one's environment. You-are-here GPS renders such participation optional.

It's like nutrition. "We've spent a thousand years trying desperately to make sure people don't starve—anything that gets calories into people is OK—but then we've got the problem of too much," he says, sounding like food evangelist Michael Pollan. And in a sense he is the Pollan of navigation. We have spent so much time ruthlessly mapping the world, virtually eliminating our chances of being lost, that we no longer know where we are. So tomorrow Gooley's going to teach me to reclaim some of this lost knowledge. Our field of inquiry is Dartmoor, one of England's last great wild places, some 235,000 acres of windswept nothing. The plan is to journey in two days from Ivybridge to the small village of Hexworthy—traversing half the park. "Our walk will be at some levels as interesting as some of the bigger things I've done," Gooley tells me. "You could just pick up one rock off a path and easily spend a day just trying to get to the bottom of it: What geographical formation created this? What weather eroded this? Why are the lichens growing like this?"

I pack my iPhone just in case.

IN THE MORNING we are at a stone wall on Dartmoor's southern edge. Before abandoning map and compass, we're employing one of the key natural-navigation techniques: measuring prevailing winds. The very term suggests that wind, while capricious, tends to follow patterns. Over time, these leave traces on the land.

"Unsupported things have only got a memory of about a half-hour," he says. "Something like that"—he points to grasses clutched around clumps of yellow gorse—"have a longer memory, perhaps 24 hours." And trees have the longest memory of all—five years or so of blown remembrance.

The row of trees before us, for example, look as if they've been swept by a giant, southwesterly comb. Gooley asks me to close my eyes and try to orient myself so I can feel wind equally on both cheeks. (The old wet finger in the wind, he implies, is rubbish.) When I open my eyes again, I'm facing dead southwest. Trees also record the sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, trees—if one takes an imaginary chainsaw down the middle—will be weightier on the southern side.

Even before reaching the park's edge, we were charting our direction in town. Satellite dishes peeping from rooftops indicate south-southeasterly. A church we passed was built, like most historic churches, on an east–west axis. (The altar is east.) So was the cemetery—for the dead to view the coming of Christ on Judgment Day. A stream courses downhill, the plume of a factory blows in a pronounced direction, there is the distant roar of the motorway.

"A lot of natural navigation is common sense," Gooley says, "but a lot of it is just tuning in to and making sense of things." Humility is also important, as "there's no way you can perfect the art of natural navigation without getting to almost theological levels of knowledge." Bits and pieces are picked up here and there. In the Canary Islands, he was advised that the best way to catch the tradewinds of the "Azores high" was to head south "until the butter melted." In his travels, a large-scale commercial farmer once observed that moles tend to prefer malleable earth, hence ground that is wet and soft—typically northern slopes. While hills whose color has been changed by mole activity is not "the sort of clue that's going to hold your course for ages," he says, "it adds a richness."

Our direction established, Gooley sets me up for what he warns is a boring but essential navigational task: measuring distance. And so we trudge uphill, counting footfalls, toward an old surveyor's beacon that the map advises is a kilometer away. We reach it in roughly 600 paces, equivalent to three kilometers per hour, normal for heavy packs. Our direction and distance established—the time and tide of navigation—we put away the map and compass for good.

From the hill's crest I get my first real look at Dartmoor: endlessly undulating, wind-raked mires and hills, the tops of which are commanded by neolithic cairns and crosses, like signals from the past caught in some frozen echo. Curiously, for all its proclaimed wildness, Dartmoor is etched with countless human traces, a sprawling, sepulchral repository of monolithic cromlechs and kistvaens. There are also stone rows whose purpose has long been debated, though a reigning interpretation, rather ironically, is that they represent bearings; as a late-19th-century report speculated, they are oriented toward a "definite object, whatever that object might have been." Not surprisingly, this Lord of the Rings–meets– Spinal Tap vibe has attracted what one archaeologist calls "druidical speculations," and recently slaughtered sheep have been found arranged in heptagrams.

As if things were not spooky enough, the famous Dartmoor mist soon creeps in, almost comically: the 1930s Hollywood backlot version of the moors. This is the Dartmoor that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. For us the mist means visibility of only 200 feet, sometimes as little as 30. The green pastures distant to the east or west have vanished, and we're in a uniform world of gloom and grass.

"The first place you always look is up to the sky," Gooley says. "If you've got the sun, it becomes perfectly easy. I'm secretly glad we don't." What remain are the winds, the bent grasses, and our knowledge, gleaned earlier from the map, of a central ridge running roughly north–south. "The forces that shape land act over a broad-enough scale," says Gooley, "that you do not find assortments of hills that pop up randomly."

But there's a danger in relying too much on any cue, says Gooley: confirmation bias, or the tendency to filter information to fit preconceived notions. A perfect example is mosses and lichens. While the old saw about moss always growing on the north is untrue, one can look for an "asymmetry" of growth on a high exposed surface, like a stone. When we find a large chunk of granite, however, there's actually more moss on the southern side. "That's where the rain-bearing winds are coming from," says Gooley. Had we been going south, thinking we were going north, we might have read the moss differently.

The walk quickly turns arduous. Innocuous plains turn out to be peaty mires. With each step, I'm not sure if my foot is going to land on a clumped, ankle-jolting tussock of grass or a spongy, boot-sucking morass. The largely featureless, flattening landscape presents other navigational challenges: What appear to be short expanses become long treks, and the hills tease with false summits. Then we come upon what indeed does seem a random hill, looming in the distance. It is another human trace, the long-overgrown spoil tip of an old clay mine. Strangely, it seems to grow smaller the closer we get to it, and what had looked like Mordor is now better described as a hill with attitude.

We make camp on the southern slope of the hill. Gooley warns me that if the mist lifts, he may wake me up in the middle of the night so that we can observe the rich navigational storyboard that is the starry sky. But it never lifts, and as I stumble out at one point for a pee, all I see are the gauzily glowing eyes of a few wild sheep in the distance.

IN THE MORNING, sun finally strains through. The sun is the ne plus ultra of natural navigation—the mother compass, as it were. The sun is so steadfast a navigational aid that, as late as the first Gulf War, troops were still being issued solar compasses. (Metal tanks and magnetic compasses do not mix well.) After some quick calculations involving the time of year and position of the sun, we confirm our northerly course.

It's only then that Gooley, as we trudge our way out of a slippery ravine, tells me that he often gets lost in London while driving. "People think I'm taking the piss when I say I don't have a very good sense of direction," he says. "My whole approach is that we understand direction by connecting to and understanding the world around us, not because we have some kind of inner compass." His interest is not in survival tactics (though these clues would certainly help) nor about clever parlor tricks (though there are those, my favorite being the way the two points of a crescent moon, when a line is drawn between them and then down to the earth, indicates south). It is, as he terms it, a "salvage operation" to rescue a lost body of experience—one that is only as "necessary" in the modern world as art or music.

There is a parallel here in Matthew Crawford's impassioned defense of manual labor in his recent book Shop Class as Soulcraft. "The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit," he writes. New Mercedes models, he notes, do not have dipsticks. It is not that their oil no longer needs to be checked and changed. It is that you will not be doing it. We think we've achieved mastery over the earth, over our products, but it may well be better described as passivity.

Hexworthy, which hides itself well, is revealed only as we crest the last hill. We've found our way here with exhilarating precision, and I cannot help feeling that my eyes have been wide open, that I have a memory and instinct for the land we've crossed. Getting lost was hardly life-or-death, though being off 15 or 20 degrees could have meant hours of additional walking through trying conditions. And that would have kept us from the Forest Inn (MUDDY BOOTS AND DOGS WELCOME), where a fine local lager caps the journey.

A short while later, a cabdriver with a Rod Stewart shag fetches us for the return to Ivybridge. As we careen down the wooded one-lane road, he says, "I didn't know where I was. The sat-nav just said keep going."

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