Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Country Mile - and Other Trends in Direction-Giving

Dirt Road with View of Muckish Mountain
Some friends were talking about their recent tour around the countryside in a region they had never been to before. The trip being rather spontaneous, they had not made concrete plans for what parts of the route to cover from one day to another, and did not have a detailed map of the area. Fortunately the weather was good and the route fairly straightforward. Moreover, the locals were very helpful. "Every so often we would meet people along the way and ask - How far to Such and Such Place? They'd tell us how to get to the next destination. It was brilliant!"

I listened to this with a mixture of awe and envy. Because, funny enough, that is not quite what happens when I venture off into unknown territory and rely on others for directions. To be sure, people are always very helpful and happy to give information. But whether that information is accurate is another matter!

One thing I have noticed over the years of traveling in different countries, is that when asked for directions people don't want to let you down (or come across as not knowledgeable?) by simply admitting they do not know. Even if they don't know! So if you ask a local where something is and they haven't got a clue, they might feel compelled to guess or make something up just to be helpful. Of course this form of "helpfulness" can send you miles off course. So over time I have learned to sort of tell by the direction-giver's body language and facial expression whether they really do know where the place I am asking about is.

But it wasn't always so. Especially memorable is the time when, cycling after work in Vienna, Austria one evening, I wandered further into the suburbs than I'd meant to and stopped in a small neighbourhood park to get my bearings. A friendly, knowledgeable-looking couple walking their miniature poodle stopped to ask whether I was lost. They were very helpful, giving me detailed instructions on the quickest route back into the city ...and with their help, I ended up heading toward the Slovakian border, just as darkness descended! Luckily I met a policeman. He glanced at the crumbled paper on which the couple's directions were scribbled and shook his head. "Look here, yah?" he said, turning me around and pointing to a rather obvious-looking road with a bicycle track alongside. "Straight, always straight, and you are in Vienna. 15 kilometers."

I had cycled 15 frigging kilometers in the wrong direction! Well at least the distance he quoted turned out to be accurate, which is by far not always the case.

Much of our spare time this past summer my Significant Other and I spent exploring Donegal by bicycle. By this point we knew the area well enough overall to sort of wing it, and safely get lost in parts of it. And so often we'd set off only vaguely knowing where we were going, seeking out hidden backroads and scenic routes. In this manner we discovered many a lovely place off the beaten track we would never have come across with a more concise itinerary, and we chatted to locals lots. In the process it had become a sort of running joke between us to multiply any distance we'd be given when asking for directions by a factor of 2 or 3 at the very least.

"Is this the right way to Dunlewey?" we'd ask a man sitting on the front steps of his house, as we passed it, panting, climbing some semi-paved mountain lane.

"Oh aye, you're nearly there. Coupla miles down the road."

We'd give each other a look. "What you reckon, 7 miles?"

Earlier that very same day, we'd been told by two joggers reassuringly that the lake we were searching for was quite nearby: "Take a right at the junction, then keep going for about 4 miles and you're there." The directions in of themselves were correct. Except that the "4 miles" turned out to be 14!

Even official road signs are not immune from this trend. During one particularly exhausting trip, we were relieved beyond words to finally see a sign which promised our destination was near: "Ardara, 2km." With renewed energy we pedaled and pedaled, until surely we had gone double that distance, when we finally saw another sign: "Ardara, 1km." According to my computer, we had traveled 3.4 miles between the two signs.

"These must be country kilometers ...erm, country miles!"
"Irish miles?"

Later I was surprised to learn that the Irish mile - unlike the so-called "country mile," which is just idiom to mean "a long way away" - is actually a real measure, equaling 1.62 ordinary miles or 2.05 kilometers. And while the road signs, supposedly, have long been standardised to the uniform statute mile system, I suppose it is not impossible that the sense of distance of Irish direction-givers might still influenced by the old system. Maybe!

Then again, distance is one of those things that is more subjective than one might realise. The return trip seems shorter than the outward journey. A route that we've never traveled before always feels longer than one we know well. When the sun is shining and the road is our friend, the miles go by in a blink of an eye. When the road is draggy and the skies are bleak, the miles stretch endlessly. We can give ourselves over to fate and rely on the kindness of strangers for directions, or we can plan the tiniest detail. But even with the best laid plans and the most detailed maps available, the distance - and other aspects of the trip - can surprise us. And that, after all, is the best part.

25 comments:

  1. 1.62 miles would be a bit bigger - more like just over 2.5 km

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  2. The traditional Scandinavian mile has been standardized as 10 KILOMETERS! It used to be almost 8 in some areas where they were a bit more ambitious. I knew a couple that toured Sweden and Norway in the 70s and they learned very quickly to carry maps.

    Spindizzy

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    1. Clarification; The Scandinavian Mile used to be 8 of our 'Murican MILES before it was standardized to 10 Km(6.2 'Murican Miles).

      Crazy.

      Spin

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    2. Woah! Is that the longest mile, I wonder?

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  3. Growing up in Maine, we always made sure to give tourists the most accurate directions possible whenever asked, because of course we didn't want anyone from New York or Massachusetts getting lost. I'm sure locals in other countries display the same care when approached for guidance...

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  4. No map. Measurement of saddlepost shadow for latitude, migrating birds for North and South. There´s a lack of animals in your Pictures.

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    1. Have you tried tracking your times by observing the evaporation of water from a wet fleece draped over the bars?

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    2. The animals are wandering around lost, on the other side of the mountain.

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  5. "When the sun is shining and the road is our friend, the miles go by in a blink of an eye. When the road is draggy and the skies are bleak, the miles stretch endlessly. " - Lovely prose! I really enjoy the flow of your writing. On the subject of directions, I recall getting lost on dirt roads in South Dakota once, and pulling up to ask directions from an ancient fellow tending to a broken tractor. He looked up, scratched his head, and said "If yer goin' ta town, ya want the oil road yonder (pointing), about ten miles." - "Oil road" being an archaic term meaning asphalt-paved highway. It seems I had blundered into a time warp out there on the prairie.

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  6. A prayer that Cathryn and I formulated in our foot-trekking days still remains applicable now that we tour by bicycle: "God save us from local guides!"

    ~ David Miller

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  7. When I first moved to Houston I would go exploring on my bike, on a particularly cloudy day, I got a little far from home. No biggie except it became apparent that the weather was quickly taking a turn for the worse, the sky getting darker and I needed to take a more direct route home. Upon stopping at a gas station (normally a good call for directions) and asking how to get back where I started . . . . They looked at me and said "I have not idea"
    I was a bit dumbstruck! It was not until sometime later that I realized in the early 80's Houston was growing so fast with people from all over the country/world that MANY people did not know how to navigate the Houston metropolitan area (it is after all rather large) most were content to learn their small area of town. I just had them point me North and I boogied home! - masmojo

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  8. I can ‘see’ that wee shite of a Shetland pony lurking just out of camera to the left of the photo, eyeing up your bar grips... :)

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  9. I've lived in the same small little town for 20 years. Billed as "quaint," we are frequently visited by people from a nearby metropolis who are known for having a bit of a chesty air about them. It also has rippingly poor satellite signals for GPS. As an unassuming local frequently found pushing his organically-powered push mower on one of the better-traveled roads, I'm not uncommonly asked for directions, viz:

    TRAVELER: Excuse me, can you tell us where XYZ Flower Farm is?
    ME (wiping sweat off forehead, assuming the stance of the Authoritative Local): Sure! Turn around, head 2 miles down this road, then take the right fork. It'll be another mile on your left."
    TRAVELER: Are you sure? The GPS shows it the other way down this road.
    ME: Pretty sure, ma'am. Me and the missus lived here 20 years now, moved in right after Old Man Cassidy died.
    (I love using that line. It's so down-homey it makes me want to spit tobacco juice. Plus, these are the only times in my life that I get to use the term "missus.")
    TRAVELER: Well, the GPS says the other way, so we'll try that first.
    ME: No problem ma'am. Have a nice day. There's a nice deli up that way, you can get yourself some lunch before you turn around.

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    1. When living in the boonies on the NH/Maine border, I was often asked for directions. Best moment by far was when I got to shake my head and say "you can't get there from here" - like they did on that SNL skit about New England!

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    2. That's actually an old Irish joke - ask an Irishman for directions and he'll say, "If I was goin' dere I wouldn't start from here..." :)

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    3. Ha, I didn't know that!

      One thing that makes the "you can't get there from here" thing applicable to both the New England and Derry/Donegal coastal areas, is the jagged coastline with its abundance of peninsulaically curving land masses. You can be less than a mile away from a place, but have to drive 60 miles to get there because there's no way of crossing the water.

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    4. My family was lost in Maine one day and asked for directions. We got told "you can't get there from here, you've got to go to Portland First".

      Which was within a half hour of our campground we were staying at...

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  10. It's toy poodle, not miniature poodle!

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  11. I love exploring new areas, but I like to know the mileage so over the decades I've become pretty good with maps. Occasionally, though, I get it wrong and end up good and lost. I was in the Cotswolds a few summers ago and found myself on a lane which only became more and more remote and lonely. A signpost had pointed its way telling me the next village was, from memory, 2 miles. After what seemed like about 4 miles, your mind tells you that you must come to a village soon, or a farm or something. Trouble is, I kept pedalling on and on and every curve in the lane just found me looking at another long stretch of lane, no turn offs, no signs, no sign of human life, no animals, no cars. The lane wound its way through plantations of trees. Despite it being a sunny midsummer's day, the feeling that something was wrong, 2 miles had long come and gone, was beginning to spook me and I was very relieved to find, just as I was beginning to feel really anxious, the sight of a church steeple in a fold of hills ahead. I'll never forget that stretch of country road, I felt I would never get off it. I still shudder at the memory!

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  12. For sanity's sake, I'll ask another local (out of sight line & earshot of the first person) and compare their information. Seems to work. If the directions don't agree, get a 3rd, 4th...until you run outta locals.

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  13. When backpacking and hiking with my old scout troop, we had to do some road hiking to get back to the car. Inevitably they answer to "how much longer to the car" (the road was boring compared to the 3 waterfalls we had hiked to). My answer was always "just around the next bend and maybe 10 minutes longer". The kids would accept it and 3 miles later they would realize that it had been countless bends, an hours had passed and then ask again. I knew where we were courtesy of the map, compass and watch along with a good sense of pace but on the road they didn't have a clue about how fast we were walking or the exact distance we had to hike.

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