with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Maps, Tracks, and Getting Lost – Asking for Directions

Animated graphic of giving directions.Traveling on the road full-time, asking directions becomes part and parcel of everyday life. While living in Spain, I found the word “there” had a lot of different meanings. This added to the general confusion associated with asking for directions. The word “there” translates into Spanish as alla and va par alla and the list goes on. All are offered up by the locals when handing out directions. I ask where the post office is and get “Well, let me see, it’s down there, and then over there, and then you go way over there, and then just a little bit to there, and then you turn there and you’ll see it.” Very helpful. My favorite is ” va por alla ” which basically means “go for WAY over there”. I get confused with all these “theres”, and it must show on my face because next thing I know my arm is in a vise grip and I’m being dragged to exactly where “there” is by a very determined, but helpful, elderly lady in black.

I quickly learned to follow the dramatic hand signs that direct the different “theres”, and usually got far enough to not be overheard by the first direction giver and ask again, leap frogging with help from a variety of “there” givers and flailing arms. In North America, at least the language is more familiar, but the methods change depending upon where you are as you travel.

Limpkin Road in Fort Myers, Florida, is a landmark itself. Unfortunately, it is a backroad and only a couple blocks long. 
Photo by Brent VanFossenIn the city, I find I get very specific directions. “Go to the end of the block and turn right on Smith. Go three blocks to a street light. That’s Anderson Road. Turn left and it’s the third house on the right. House number 80.” Direct. No time wasting. Easy to remember, with a couple of landmarks thrown in. I call this kind of direction giving The Dragnet Method : Just the facts, ma’am. The instructions are brief, to the point and clear, just like Jack Web in the old television show.

In the countryside, especially in the smaller towns and backwoods, I often receive what I call The Gossip Method of direction giving. “The post office? Let’s see. Well, I was just there. Mailed a letter to my Aunt Martha. She’s been sick, you know. Got a cute get well note from the drug store to send to her. Know where that is? No, well, you won’t pass by it on the way to the post office anyway. Okay, so the post office, you say. Hmmm, just go on down the street here and turn in, oh, about two blocks. Off to the right you’ll see Nancy’s Bakery. That’s on John Street, I think. Or is it on Jack Street? One of those. Nancy’s Bakery, well, actually Nancy’s daughter runs the bakery now. Nancy died about 4 years ago and her daughter came home from college to take over the bakery. Makes a mean cinnamon roll, she does. Better than her mother ever did. I’d stop in there and pick up a few if I were you…..” and four hours later you might actually find out the post office was across the street all the time.

I don’t know if these direction givers are lonely or just struck by the novelty of showing off their local knowledge to foreigners, but it’s interminable wading through the stories to find your directions. On the good side, you learn a whole lot more about where you are, though much of it you probably didn’t want to know in the first place.

Brent searches for a direction on the Matanuska Glacier. How did we get up here? 
Photo by Lorelle VanFossenOne of my favorite direction methods is The Landmark Method. It is offered up in two variations. I punched a hole in my bike tire in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, and needed to get it fixed. Brent and I walked half the length of the town to only find one bike shop which was closed on Mondays. Of course, it was Monday. I finally stopped and went in for directions at an auto repair shop. For a while, I thought I was having problems with the language, but then I remembered: I speak English, too.

“I’m passing through town and I’m looking for a bicycle repair shop. Do you know where one is?”

“There’s one just down the street.”

“Yes, I know. We just passed it. It’s closed. Any others?”

“Do you know where Elements is?”

“No, I don’t know where anything is.”

“Do you know where Ogilvy Street is?”


“Do you know where the grocery store is?”

“No, I don’t know where anything is. I’ve just arrived from out of town.”

“Okay, well, did you see the hearse coming into town?”

“A what?”



“No, hearse. Did you see the hearse?”


“There is a hearse parked right out in front of Elements.”

“A hearse. Okay. I think. A hearse.”

“Yep. Look for the hearse.”

“What is Elements?”

“The bike shop.”

“And I look for the hearse.”


“Down that way.”


“A hearse. In front of Elements.”

“Yep. That’s the place.”

Okay, so maybe I should call this the Abbott and Costello version of direction giving, but it is still based on landmarks: The Hearse. Brent and I walk back the way we had just come, and about three blocks later we find an old gray hearse parked outside of a little store with the name “Elements” on a sign above the door. Inscribed upon the hearse are the words, “Snow*Dirt*Street”. Like we would have known this was a bike shop. But it was where he said it was and they were a tremendous help and got us fixed up right away.

The other variation on The Landmark Method is what I call the Mailbox Variation. “I’m looking for 1212 Smith Lane. Can you help me?”

“Why sure! Just drive out on Anderson Street until you get to Martha Brown’s house. Martha has a mailbox in the shape of a train. Albert Brown is a train nut. You’ll know it when you see it. Turn left there and go about a mile until you see a big yellow mailbox with Jackson written on it. There’s a road across from there and that’s Fifth Street. Go past four mailboxes and a big tree with a swing in it until you see a big green house. That’s the Reverend Baldwin’s old homestead. And turn right. Then two mailboxes and you’re there.”

Mailboxes in Texas, photo by Brent VanFossenThis method is based upon landmarks of where people live and their mailboxes if you can’t see the house or another landmark from the road. This harkens back to the good old days when a mailbox was the major source of communication in the world. Another variation on this uses stop lights. Read through the above and replace most of the mail boxes with stop lights and you’ll see what we mean.

We’ve experienced just about all of these and combinations, too. The most feared is the Landmark Method combined with the Gossip Method. A week later you arrive at your destination, not only stuffed with more insider information than you will ever need, but with cookies and coffee, too.

There is one last method which I find rarely, but requires a mention. This is The Silent Method. So far I’ve just experienced this with very old men, the kind who are usually busy working on some woodworking or mechanical project. Time has not been kind to their poor bodies and they look old no matter how old they are. The grit and grime of their jobs are embedded permanently into their faces with deep, dark creases. You know there are smiles somewhere in there, but they are lost in the gruff presentation. Their directions are very simple, but filled with the famous “pregnant pause” effect.

“Do you know where the gas station is?”

“Yep.” PAUSE. “Can you tell me where it is?” PAUSE. “Yep.” PAUSE. “Where is it?” Directions often consist of a slowly waved arm in a vague direction. If I’m really lucky, I get a grunt to accompany the hand motion. That’s when I head in the direction they pointed and find someone else with another method to get me to where I’m going.

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