The Joy of Unknowing (2)

As soon as I had written my last blog post, I thought of this piece I wrote quite a long time ago which offers a similar take on travel and navigation. I am tempted to tidy it up a bit and perhaps update it to mention GPS, but instead I’ll leave it as it is.


When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner. They were there for me when I was really stuck, or just wanted to know which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a careful, detailed way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I feel as though I’ve lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s touring maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It felt like an adventure, an exploration.


Now, I need to be more and more remote to get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Having just spent some time in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position. It doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, by using the map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I was heading for, lies a motorway or building estate, and so I spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It is another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that it seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round the cliff?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

20 thoughts on “The Joy of Unknowing (2)

  1. You have my undying admiration, for I can neither read a map properly, nor follow the directions of a GPS, therefore every time I travel, which thankfully is rarely these days, I find myself lost at least once. I am, as one friend calls me, navigationally challenged. I even got lost 3 miles from my home a couple of years ago! I can, however, make it to the park behind myself, do 4 laps around the track, and find my way back home, although I once went down the wrong street and wondered why there was a new wreath on my door!

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  2. I have been much of map person then and now. While earlier it was a printed map, these days it’s invariably google map that people use. I always use my general sense of direction and rely on locals to find my way. A rewarding experience.

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  3. The art of proper mapreading has been almost been lost hasn’t it? We love nothing more than heading out with a map to discover what lies beyond. Forget the GPS, getting lost can be a joy sometimes.

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    1. If not lost, then it’s become a specialised subject almost confined to keen walkers and outdoor instructors. I used to grind my teeth over the number of times a group would be late for a session I was running because their GPS failed them and they had no idea where they were. They’d phone and say they were lost. ‘Have you got a map?’ I’d ask them. ‘No,’ ‘Well what was the last town you drove through?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Um…what route were you taking?’ ‘I don’t know.’

      But to have the map and compass with you (and the knowledge how to use them!) so you can sort out where you are if you have to, enables you to just head off and see what happens.

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  4. There is something fun about just heading off in whatever direction happens to interest us, isn’t there? Maps are great when we have to be somewhere special at a particular time, but otherwise, I’m with you….keep the adventure in travel!
    And I do love beaches, but not to lie on. I like to walk along the shoreline, always enjoying what is around the next bend!

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  5. I admit to being spoiled by Google Maps and detailed directions. I sometimes wonder how I ever got anywhere without getting lost, back in the Atlas days.

    I’d have to say the most complex maps I’ve used are aviation maps, with all the airport and nav beacon info, airspace designations, restrictions, etc. It was plotter and compass heading days. It’s been years since I went there, I wonder how they’ve changed?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect they may be the same – they must surely make allowances for navigators doing it the old school way?

      They sound the complete opposite to some of the large scale maps I used in the desert – there would be huge areas just blank with perhaps the occasional ‘tree’ or ‘rock’ marked.

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