I decided to take my wife out to the North Fork to visit some vineyards and wineries. We are on Long Island for a few days and had a respite from the two boys (our eldest’s children) who were in a day camp until late afternoon. I had been to the wineries before, of course, and knew the way: go the far end of the Long Island Expressway, take the roads that branch north eastwards and there they are.
Alas as we got further and further along the LIE it became clear the traffic was not going to ease. I decided to get off and take back roads. Keep heading north and you inevitably bump into them. Or, I could have taken out my GPS which had fallen off the windshield due to the heat. I decided to wing it.
Long Island is a funny place (in many ways, only one of which am I going to mention here!) It lies at an odd angle, not exactly east/west and not exactly north/south. And yet, these four compass cardinal point references are used as if they lay directly along those wonderful imaginary lines of longitude and latitude. Couple this verbal quirkiness with the fact that roads in turn seldom flow directly and you have a recipe for compass confusion. State Highway 25 and its companion 25A are branded “north” and “south” but this labelling is either an intentional, cruel joke or a habit of the local compass quirkiness so ingrained in the spirit that it is no longer apparent.
On the floor of the Jeep somewhere was a Rand McNally Atlas of the USA. My wife, muttering something about my not using the GPS and stubbornness, scrambled to retrieve it from under the floor-mats and the extraneous junk and detritus, some formally edible, that lurks at all times in our vehicles, except for that rare moment right after vacuuming them at the car wash. On the map Long Island appeared like a small blob, but there was a slightly more detailed inset at the bottom of the page. Miraculously she located where we were. My instructions to my navigator were simple. “Find the water. Get me to Long Island Sound.” She successfully did so, no small miracle given the scale of the map she was using. With the clock inevitably ticking away and the moment of the boys’ return from camp drawing ever closer, we turned to keep the water on our right and spent a contented few hours meandering through the towns and villages of Long Island’s northern shore, stopping for coffee and a muffin in pretty (over pretty?) Stony Brook. Not a day at the wineries, but not bad. We got back in time to play with the boys and take them out to supper. Perfect day.
But, why hadn’t I simply re-stuck the GPS to the windshield and used it? I actually am a great fan of it, although the voice gets on my nerves from time to time, but it can be muted. There is no real difference between the GPS and the Rand McNally after all, other than the degree of technical sophistication involved in the presentation of geographical facts. I think it had something to do with my years of sailing and being taught never to regard charts, GPS, radar and the like as anything more than “aids to navigation.” There was, for me, always something thrilling about getting back to harbor by wits and eyes alone. Finding my way yesterday by “finding the water” and keeping it to the right was a lesser experience of the same thing.
We all need to be able to do this. Not on the roads or on the water. In life. We have to be able to find our way when our chosen aids to navigation don’t work, aren’t available, or …. die. Some things don’t move; they don’t change. Long Island Sound, as it were, lies there where it lies and still will.
These things used to be called absolutes. That’s the thing about absolutes. They may fall out of fashion, they don’t sound glitzy, they seem to be useless in the world of the “latest and greatest,” they don’t plug in to the grid, they don’t download and are impervious to uploading. But they are there.
They are always there. To tell us where we are. That’s the first thing we need to know to get where we want to go.