Straight Line to Nowhere

Let me be completely honest with you, when it comes to a sense of direction, I don’t have one.  I do O.K. with respect to the other 5 traditional senses insofar as I possess them in varying quantities. I can see, I can touch, I can taste, and I have been known to feel on occasion.  My hearing is admittedly not great, something I didn’t actually become aware of until my mid-20s. Until that time I thought it was entirely normal not to be able to hear your cell phone, and instead depend on a strong vibration feature.  Only after being pressured by my friends and family to get my hearing checked and only after the good doctor delicately asking me in an unnecessarily loud voice  “BY CHANCE, WERE YOU A ROADIE WITH METALLICA THROUGHOUT THE 1990s?”, that I finally acknowledged I was a little weak on the hearing front.   Turns out I was never a roadie for Metallica, but the science is now in and the culprit was Q-tips.  I was an aggressive Q-tip user in my youth, I jammed those things deep within my ear canal on a daily basis, it felt amazing, I miss them. We will leave it at that.

But there is no denying my complete lack of anything resembling a sense of direction.  Somehow, when they were handing out internal compasses at the baby making factory, they forgot to install mine.  As with my shitty hearing, it took me a while to realize I was lacking in the sense of direction department.  I had developed a relatively easy system for identifying where I was going, or where I had been, that I assumed everyone else had been forced to develop as well.  It’s a straightforward and easy to use 13-step program.  Suppose I want to identify where south is, for example, it would look like this:

1)     Try to find the sun.

Note: If unsuccessful with Step 1, no further action is necessary.  South, unfortunately, cannot be located at this time. If you can locate the sun in the sky, continue to Step 2.

2)     Check a clock to see if it is before or after 12 noon.

3)     Recall to yourself the old saying “The sun sets in the west”. Say it again quietly a few more times to double-check the phrase doesn’t actually sound better as “The sun sets in the east.”

4)     Being confident that the sun does indeed set in the west, determine if the sun is currently setting or rising as per step 2.

5)     Check the time, if it is well into the afternoon, carry on to step 6.  If it is precisely noon, you must wait the requisite amount of time until you can be certain of where the sun will actually set in the sky.  3pm is a good time that tends to work well year round.

6)     Face the direction of the setting Sun – this is west.

7)     Now, get yourself a piece of paper and a writing instrument of your choosing and recite the words “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” quietly to yourself (so as not to disturb curious onlookers), cleverly knowing that each word corresponds to the directions North, East, South, West.

8)     On the piece of paper, write the letters N,E,S,W as they would appear on a compass.

9)     If struggling with step 8, recite the clever mnemonic from Step 7 a 2nd or 3rd  time as necessary.

10)Holding the paper in front of you, align the letter W with the correct direction West that you identified in Step 6. Rotate both your body and the paper in your hand. In this case, this requires a ¼ rotation to your right.

11)You are now facing North.

12)Per the guide in front of you, South is now directly behind you.

13)Turn 180 degrees, you are now facing South!

And this to me is/was a perfectly normal series of steps I would have to go through whenever someone innocently mentioned or asked me something such as:

“What direction does your back yard face?”


“I will meet you on the east side of the building”


“Are you located on the north or south side of your street?”

Most folks would find it slightly odd watching me go through my 13 step program in an effort to answer their relatively straightforward question, but when I came back to them with a sensible answer, they always knew they were talking to no dummy.

My system isn’t full proof though.  Amazingly, there are some freaks of nature out there whose internal compass knows no limits.  To these people, their ability to quickly and intuitively determine north, south, east, and west is possible both outdoors, indoors, and in unfamiliar locales.  Diabolical, I know.  I think we can all agree that people who can perform this task easily when indoors within a strange city are clearly offspring of an advanced alien based life form.   When I’m shopping at my local grocery store and ask one of the employees where the Just for Men is located, as I do, these are the alien assholes who respond with “Just on the east said of aisle 9”.

Just on the east side of aisle 9?  Who are you, Superman’s cousin? Hey fucknut, you do realize we are indoors don’t you?  You do realize I don’t carry a compass with me to the grocery store?  You do realize I am of this planet? These folks might as well respond with “IX ad orientalem plagam transitus Domini”, which would make about as much sense to me as the “east side of aisle 9”.

I have been known to play golf on occasion.  For those not familiar, this is the sport where you constantly walk in random, ever-changing directions through a tree lined green field for the better part of 5 hours.   I have a friend I play with regularly who has the other worldly ability to be able to instantly point in the direction of the clubhouse no matter how long we have been playing for, no matter how many random turns we have made, and and no matter how out of sight the club house is.  He’s the same person that can also tell me what club he used to hit his 3rd shot on the 14th hole during the round he played last Tuesday, but that is a different story altogether.  I have come to the conclusion that he too is an alien based life form. I know his parents very well, known them most of my life in fact, mark my words, they’re all alien.

Right about now, you’re probably all wondering where the payoff is?  We hear you Mark, you don’t know east from your asshole, why are you telling us this?  Well I hear you too, and the reason I am telling you is because I had a bit of a situation a few weeks ago, a directional related situation, and believe me, this story provides all the more joy if you know the background.

I had a business trip to make, I was driving from Calgary to Edmonton.  I have made this drive hundreds of times, as have a lot of people who live in both Calgary and Edmonton. If you are unfamiliar with the two cities of which I speak, go ahead and load up your favourite map, and have yourself a look. It’s O.K., I’ll wait…Is your map up? Are you staring at the wonderful Canadian province of Alberta? Great, zoom in or out as necessary until you can get a really good view of just Calgary and Edmonton – they are about a 3 hour drive from each other.  Notice anything interesting about how to drive from one city to the other? Maybe zoom in some more, take a look at the number of different routes there are to make that trip, the number of different turns required, the overall navigational complexity involved in successfully making the trip.  Do you see nothing more other than a dark straight line between the two cities?  Great, that is Alberta’s Highway 2, it is a straight highway travelling only North-South and it is the only way to make that trip, there are no turns required.  It is one of the most straightforward drives you can ever make, a wonderful opportunity to drive on cruise control the entire trip too.  As the great enterprising genius Ron Popeil once said of his 1991 Ronco Food Dehydrater, you just “set it and forget it”.  In order for anyone to drive to Edmonton from Calgary they simply set their cruise control and drive north for 3 hours on Highway 2. If you were to choose to sleep while making that drive, I am positive you wouldn’t be the first.

It was a Tuesday morning, I had a lunch meeting to be at in Edmonton. Giving myself plenty of time for coffee stops, bio breaks, or anything else that might come up, I left my house at 8am in my new 2016 white Chevy Malibu. It, along with every other 2016 white Chevy Malibu on the road was a rental car. Company policy stipulated any business trip over 100km had to be made in a rental. That way my employer could save a few dollars by not having to pay out the standard per kilometer “wear & tear” charge we were entitled to if using our own vehicles. I didn’t mind, the bare bones white Malibu was an upgrade for me.  4 hours to make a straight northerly 3 hour drive involving no turns, enough time to pick up a coffee, crank the tunes and head north. Or at least that was the plan.

Perhaps some illustration would assist at this point.  You’ll see below my lunch destination in Edmonton (marked X), my home in Calgary (marked Y), and the navigational considerations required (marked by the straight black line between X and Y).

Exhibit A:

NSEW jpeg


Now, you’ll note at this point that I have been guilty up until now of over simplifying things somewhat as I of course do not live on the highway marked by the straight black line. There is one important turn required to get from Y (my home)  to the ever-important straight black line. And this is basically where things go off the rails for me.  Coffee in hand, tunes blasting I was on the first part of my journey, being the trip to the straight black line from my house.  It was late winter and at 8am the sun was not yet fully up, it was still a tad dark outside.  And it was kind of misty too, a bit of fog was in the air.  And all I am really trying to do at this point is justify to you as best I can just how the hell it came to be that I bungled up my 3 hour straight north, one-turn, trip to Edmonton.

Barreling down the road, pretending to be the rock star I always knew I could be, I approached the interchange that connected the road I was currently on with the straight black line. To my defense, this was a relatively new interchange connecting these 2 roads that had only been completed some three and a half years earlier, if that.  Driving on to the ramp, one could either veer left (north) in order to be properly connected with the straight black line or maintain your current direction (east) and continue eastward into the flat, desolate abyss that is the Canadian prairies.

Feeling myself veering left onto the straight black line, I straightened back out, set the cruise precisely at 10 Km/hr over the speed limit (bringing me to 120 Km/hr, just enough to piss the cops off, but not enough for them to pull me over) and settled in for my 3 hour drive to Edmonton.  After about an hour of whizzing by slow moving vehicles and pretending to be my own personal mash-up of Bono and Eddie Vedder, I realized that something may be amiss.  Firstly, I was currently driving on a one-lane in either direction “highway”, whereas it had been 3 lanes when I started and to the best of my recollection from completing this trip hundreds of time prior, the highway between Calgary and Edmonton never went below 2 lanes in either direction.  This observation was confounding.  Secondly, I had realized I had not noticed any of the usual landmarks along the way. Living in the far south end of Calgary, driving north to Edmonton required driving north through the entire city of Calgary, which necessitated driving past the large concrete jungle in the middle of the city being downtown….I had not seemed to have driven past downtown.  This too, was confounding to me. Finally, glancing around some more, I realized the only vehicles around me were beat up old pick up trucks, there was little civilization in sight anywhere, and it now reeked of horse shit. At this point, I was fully and truly confounded.

Rather than staying in my bewildered state, I decided to call a spade a space, I had somehow managed to make a wrong turn on my one-turn trip.  In other words, up until this point, I had gotten 100% of the turns wrong. I was most regrettably in Alberta’s farmland country now, and that meant I was headed east through the prairies, most definitely not heading north to Edmonton.  I had somehow exceeded even my own wildest expectations and miss-navigated the brand spanking new 3.5 year old interchange, which was now an hour in my rear view mirror.  A road sign I was approaching informed me of the upcoming metropolis I would be arriving at shortly,  “Cluny, 5 Km” it read. Look up Cluny to see for yourself, delightful little town.

So rather than follow the ideal route pictured in Exhibit A, I had followed the less than ideal route pictured below:

Exhibit B:2nd Graphic NSEW

 I wish I could say I immediately knew where I was, what had gone wrong, and what I needed to do to get back on course. But I can’t and I didn’t.  I was completely and utterly disoriented and confused over how the hell this could have gone so wrong.  All I knew was that it shouldn’t smell like horse shit, so in a frantic tizzy, I called Jerilyn. Thankfully, she answered:


“Hey, quick question, where am I?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Pull me up on Find Friends, I don’t know where the fuck I am”

“Seriously, what’s going on? You left for Edmonton over an hour ago”

“I know, I know, but something went very wrong.  I have no idea where I am, must have made a wrong turn. All I know is it stinks of horse shit here and I am nowhere near Edmonton.”

“Made a wrong turn? There are no turns to Edmonton!”


Apologizing for my sudden fit of rage, I gave Jerilyn a few moments to answer my question.

“Says here you are near a town called Cluny?  Looks like you’ve gone over 100 kilometers in the wrong direction.  Miss your morning coffee or something?”

Turns out calling Jerilyn was of very little help.  I knew I was near the bustling metropolis of Cluny by the road sign, and by now I also figured I was way off course.  All I had really accomplished with that little phone call was to offend my wife and give credence to her theory that I should never drive a vehicle unless accompanied by a grown adult.  Just as bad, with all the back tracking involved, this little excursion would end up tacking 2 hours to my trip.  Having allowed 1 hour for pee breaks (of which now, there would be none), I was now going to be 1 hour late, best case scenario.  I called my client to warn him, letting him know I had had “some unexpected issues to deal with” that morning. As I had hoped, he understood and didn’t ask any further questions.  Lunch would continue, I needed to bust my ass and make up some time.

Backtracking through farmland for an hour and then heading north on the straight black line, as originally intended 2 hours prior, I eventually arrived in Edmonton just under 5 hours after leaving my house that morning.  I was both exhausted and still incredibly pissed off at myself for inexplicably managing to fuck the drive up. Nevertheless, there was business to be conducted.  Time to pick myself up off the floor and move on.  Greeting my client at the restaurant, we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.  He had noticed my nondescript white Chevy Malibu in the parking lot and had given me a little jab over it, “It’s a rental” I explained, little did he know it was also an upgrade.

“So what happened this morning if you don’t mind me asking? Everything OK?”

Damn it, I was hoping we could all move on without reliving my 5 hour ordeal. Time for an excuse, admitting you got lost on the way from Calgary to Edmonton was not a way to strengthen client relationships in this part of the world.

“Oh, no, nothing serious at all.  Just had an unexpected call to take, don’t have hands free in my vehicle, so thought best to pull over. The call lasted for about an hour, my apologies again for the inconvenience and thank you for your understanding.”

Perfect Howells, perfect.  He doesn’t need to know I left my house at 8am, and he certainly doesn’t need to know I killed 2 hours driving back and forth through the sticks.  Just an unexpected 1 hour phone call, and I therefore arrived most regrettably 1 hour late.  Damn, you’re brilliant Mr. Howells.

Staring quizzically out the restaurant window once more at my shiny new 2016 Chevy Malibu, my client asked “I thought all new cars were now federally legislated to have hands free built into them?”

“Ha ha, I am sure they are Fred, I am sure they are……..Hey, would you pass the bread please?”

He didn’t pass the bread, just stared at me.  Silence is my weakness, so I spilled my guts…and picked up the tab.

Hope you enjoyed this story, let me know if you too can’t tell North from a hole in the ground. Or just as good, let me know if you’re one of the weird alien folk…and explain your powers below!

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