I overheard a fellow worker telling about his adventures in New York City. He described how he had become confused about directions and, finding a native, he said, “I’m a stranger here and have lost my directions. Could you tell me which way is north?”
My coworker then quoted the answer he got, which is suitable language only if you are a mule skinner.
Except for the part about the language, it reminded me of the problems I have had communicating with my wife. You see, she comes from Maine, also known as “Down East.” (That makes her a “Mainiac.”) In Maine, and also, I suppose, in much of the East, the residents don’t talk north and south. To them, everything is left or right.
It wasn’t until I visited Maine that I discovered the reason for this. In Maine, north and south don’t exist. This may seen improbable, but I have personally observed this phenomenon.
If you look out a window in Idaho, there is a good chance you can find a significant landmark that is twenty, thirty, sixty miles away. It might be the Twin Buttes out on the desert. (West.) It might the Tetons or Iona Hill. (East.) Or it might be the Annis Buttes. (North.)
Almost always, there is some landmark that can serve as a reference point. Even when these landmarks are not in sight, I can keep everything straight by referring to the map that is projected on the inside of my skull.
But in Maine, if you look out the window, you will see a tree. Behind that tree is another tree and there are more trees behind that one. From an airplane, everything is green, as if it were covered by a shag chlorophyll carpet.
I have nothing against trees, but they should know their place, which is up on the north side of a mountain.
The man who said, “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” must have been talking about Maine.
And their streets. In Idaho, most streets are oriented in a grid and the grid is laid by the points of a compass, this being the system ordered by Brigham Young when he began to colonize the west with all his Mormon Pioneers.
In Maine, the streets go every which way. It is as if someone had run the street plan through a blender and then stuck the pieces back together. Street corners are seldom square. Intersections are where three or five roads randomly converge.
Some neanderthal, who fortunately remained anonymous, said the streets in Maine had been laid out by Helen Keller.
Nonsense. She wouldn’t have been so illogical.
In Maine, people don’t orient themselves on a mental map. Instead, they go places by following a set of linear instructions. That is, go one mile, turn left at the church, go two miles, turn right, etc.
In Idaho, my sense of direction is great, but for those two weeks in Maine, my wife was my guide. Otherwise, I would still be there.
We’ve had some very interesting conversations because of our differences. For instance, when she gives directions on the phone to an Idaho friend, one who is sensibly oriented to north and south, I get to translate.
“You go down Blaine,” she points for my benefit.
“South,” I say.
“Go south until you find the ball park on the left.”
“Ball park to the east. Then you turn right which is‑‑”
“Go west and go until you get to the river and turn left‑‑”
“That is south.”
Most of the time, it works, assuming I already know the destination she is talking about.
I’ve tried to teach her compass directions but it is almost as impossible as teaching me left and right. Like any foreign language, you never seem to lose your accent. So, if you go up north to Maine, you will be “Down East.”