Two bloggers I follow, Lumens Borealis and Freelancing to Freedom, have come at the topic of navigation from different parts of the human perspective. By doing this they made me think about my journey in navigation, both practical and philosophical. I started exploring from a very young age and maps, the depiction of landscape fascinated me. Only when I was older did I make the link between travelling in the world and travelling in life. But that link is now a strong one for me.
The reason these posts caught my eye was the question they asked. How do we find our way? In Freelancing, the topic is one of lists and goals, of breaking large goals into smaller ones. Manageable chunks. Lumens talks of the waymarks left behind by our predecessors to help us on our way, the physical markers put into the landscape by explorers to say “I have been here, it is OK”
I love travelling, on foot, in cities, in the mountains, on the road. And I like to think I can find my way about, I learnt to map-read when I was about ten, and have been finding new ways ever since, I don’t think you can ever stop learning. I have even done a course in French where they only used the compass after you could use the map, designed to make you look at the landscape and read it well before you walked on it. I have a good sense of direction, I look at the world around me, feel its shape and find landmarks and other clues to find where I am. If things go awry I can get back on track, I can walk and know if it feels wrong, I can use any one of a number of ways to sort out why it is wrong. I am not special, I’ve been doing it for a while, and the most important thing I think, for good navigation, is observation. Using markers, goals to confirm or deny my place at any given moment. I may plan, have maps, apps and GPS, but if I don’t watch where I’m going, it means nothing.
Much like the goals we set ourselves, we check each time we achieve something. A summit, a mountain pass. Something that cannot be mistaken for something else. A mental tick or a physical mark on the map. My wife despairs of my disordered working area. Tools spread around, materials piled, plans and instructions (I try to lose instructions – I don’t believe in them) in random cupboards, I know where they are, it’s just not a plan she can see. When it comes to the hills though, to route-finding, I love going over possible routes, looking at maps and photos of the area. I like to know where I am going, to almost have the map in my head.
Landscapes push us and pull us without our knowledge, cloud falls, wind makes us veer of course. Our life is the same and knowing this helps. We can check course more often, or stop to regroup. An escape route in the mountains is very important, or places to shelter if the weather turns. My wife knows where I am going, especially as I often head out alone in the hills, she knows timings, who to call, and when to worry, and having friends to tell you if they think you are making a bad choice is like having an escape route. Having someone ready to call out the cavalry makes us feel secure in our place.
The modern world has many ways to stay in touch, though this can separate us from the world and many people have stopped living outside, choosing instead to live on the internet (I know, here I am, the irony of it all.) or immerse themselves in work. Pursuing money or power in the belief they can catch up on dreams later. Our goals should include the world outside us, the life we live, me time, family and friends time. In the mountains, many people choose to carry a GPS receiver, believing technology is better. A GPS is a tool, like a mobile phone, not inherently good or bad, only as useful as the way we use it. Paper maps like paper books are not going to die, they too have a place because of what they can do that technology can’t. In my car, I have a GPS. In the end, I had to turn the sound off, drove me nuts. It kept telling me I was going the wrong way, now it sits in the glovebox, it’s old. There are no updates for the maps, and I still do use it, from time to time, always with the sound off, it will for me always be an extra, you can’t beat using your eyes and the clues around you. And planning beforehand so you know where you are going, that mental map again, full with landmarks and places to pass on the way.
Timing is how I track myself. A distance in my head is time, not paces, I have a good idea of how long I will be over terrain, a route will take a certain time, ascent and descent changes the flat ground time, as does who is with me, and if we had a few beers the night before. Another important thing people leave out from their plans, navigating and otherwise, is the time to look about, to take photos and have a coffee and chat with someone we meet on the way. I try to add spare time for this, an hour sometimes more, you never can tell, it might rain and then you can save that hour, some enjoy the challenge peak-bagging, ticking off the summit and seeing the list grow so time is of the essence, there are a lot of hills out there. For me, I like the journey, I take lots of pictures, I sit and write or draw while I am walking, I love a picnic in the hills. I smile at strangers passing, I talk with other walkers, they may know something about the route ahead worth knowing, worth detouring to see, not to say I haven’t raced to the top to claim a summit or two. It just seems wrong not to enjoy the sights on the way as well.
The art of navigation is about having confidence in your direction. If it goes slightly wrong, the essence of being lost is the decision you make afterwards. Is this new place a step leading me where I want to be, albeit with some modifications, or do I need to retrace and re-find myself. Of course you may like where you are and choose to stand and look at the clouds in the sky this time or the view may be magnificent, who knows?
So this is my philosophy of navigation. Anyone can learn to navigate, it takes time, but you learn a lot about yourself on the way. You can connect with the land and the people on it as you pass. If you do it long enough you will pick up clues you don’t even see, things that to others seem like a kind of magic. Don’t be selfish with knowledge show everyone how you connect with the world around you, in the wilds or in the cities and towns. Life has all the same props and pitfalls, some people can see to the nub of problems, others ride on oblivious, all the while we will find new places to go and new ways to do things, not always good, not always bad. In all things, we use what skills we can, and what tools we find useful. I still like to have a map and compass, and I can still find my way when I need too.
What is your top tips for navigating? Mine is – Never miss the chance to confirm where you are, whenever you can get an easy positional fix, get one. Mark it on the map in pencil if you want. Then you will know where you were even when you don’t know where you are. It helps I promise. Most of all, enjoy the journey, it’s all we have.