Practicing the odd, misleading, and almost always imprecise art of giving— and receiving— directions.


Much has been made in recent years of the manner in which people ask for directions—women do, men don’t; women will admit to being lost, men generally won’t. Of much greater interest to me is the way people give directions. MapQuest and GPS notwithstanding, we all need to pull over and ask someone for help sometimes. The odd and overtly contradictory instructions that are then invariably offered charm me so thoroughly that I often end up glad to have gotten lost.

Providence, Rhode Island, is a city in which I am prone to wrong turns, and on my last trip there, I made the inevitable stop at a bodega to find out how I might find my way out of town and back to Route 6. The elderly man behind the counter gave me extensive instructions that included circling back the way I had come, taking a shortcut through an alley, and crossing two bridges. But as I left the store, a twentysomething customer followed me out to suggest a much simpler, quicker, and more direct route that involved reversing course, going straight, and making a single turn. The difference in these two offerings illustrates that how one gives directions tends to be a highly individual, personal, and sometimes even poetic enterprise.

The more I ask friends about this, the more I realize that virtually everyone has had a similar experience. The unpredictable alliances of memory and landscape can be especially perplexing when driving directions are based on the assumption that things are as they once were when all was right in this world. Architect James Biber tells me of the time he was in a small Connecticut town and asked for directions from an "old codger," and received the intriguing, if useless, advice to "turn left where the old schoolhouse used to be." I know, though, that I have given such impractical advice myself, not out of malice but from pure sentiment. I live in what was once a farming community in the Hudson River Valley. Now it is exurban, its silos and barns falling into ever-greater disrepair; long after one silo with a dangerous but captivating tilt had given way to the elements, there were times when, in spite of myself, I cited it as a landmark.

The sense of displacement that a lost traveler feels is sometimes shared by the locals—which is what the actor David Strathairn found some years ago when he was on location in Nebraska for a television production of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! Road names were being changed from family surnames to numbers, and the work was still in progress. "East of downtown Lincoln, the landscape rolls and rolls like a gigantic quilt with wind underneath it," he told me. "The roads cut at right angles heading off north and south, like seams between the huge sections of corn, soybeans, and fallow fields. The assistant director had listed the location as 256E, and I knew from the travel time allotted that it wasn’t far from my motel. After what was obviously too much driving, we asked a gentleman riding a tractor alongside the road if he knew where 256E was. He said, ’Yessir, it’s the first road on your right back at the bottom of the second swale. You can’t miss it. Used to be a sign telling whose road it is but they’re changing all of them to numbers now and taking their time putting up the new posts. And now nobody knows where they live anymore.’ "

Landmarks more permanent than road names and numbers can be cause for confusion, too—as often as not because the significance of the landmark resides in the teller’s mind alone. A helpful local may tell you of the village store, the cemetery, and the stone wall but fail to mention the competing large red barn, pond with the swans, and crossroad, making for an incomplete catalogue of visual aids. This, too, conforms to its own logic. If landmarks help us to derive meaning in a place, then, as with all the other guideposts we use to order our lives, we are discriminating in our choices.

Consider, too, the authoritative directive that tells you where you should go rather than where you want to go. While visiting Dublin a number of years ago, I stopped to ask for the quickest route to the Brazen Head, a centuries-old pub where I was meeting a friend. "But lambie," I was reprimanded in a lilting brogue, "surely you wouldn’t want to be going there," whereupon my affable adviser, exemplifying the celebrated congeniality of all his countrymen, made every effort to escort me personally to his brother-in-law’s pub instead, on the other, wrong side of the Liffey.

My friend Barbara Flanagan, a writer, was thrown off by cultural differences when she took a trip to Japan. Of the time she and a friend spent in Kyoto, she recalls, "We knew we had to be careful about asking for directions. People are so polite there. And they feel duty-bound to get you all the way to where you’re going. It’s almost a sacred obligation, even if they don’t really have any idea. Which can lead to your getting even more lost."

An excess of good manners isn’t the only motive for inventing information. Brenda Cullerton is a fiction writer in New York City who also feels an obligation to help tourists. "I love giving directions," she says, "especially if I know where a place is. It makes me feel as if I’m in control. I know something, I’m a local. And besides, once I’ve told them, people always look so relieved, so grateful." Her greatest directorial feat, reflecting her professional skills, may have been her devilish response to a "hopelessly jet-lagged and disoriented tourist" who asked her in downtown Manhattan, "Do you know how to get to Pennsylvania Avenue?" Cullerton couldn’t help herself. "No problem," she said, leaning in to look at his map. "Take a left at the next corner, walk three blocks north, pass the post office, and just keep going. You can’t miss it."

No contemplation on the topic of giving and receiving directions would be complete without some mention of the amnesiacs in our midst. Asking someone how to locate cherished community places can elicit the blank looks, quizzical expressions, and claims of utter ignorance my sons and I once received when we were on vacation in a small town in Vermont searching out a swimming hole that the locals were loath to share with outsiders. Near where I live now is a geological formation called the Stone Church, a small cathedral of rock with a stream and waterfall running through it. Owned privately for decades, it was recently purchased by a land trust and made accessible to the public—if you could figure out where it was. The first time I went looking for it, no one would say they had ever heard of it. Sometimes landscape is an object of such fierce love and affection that you can’t imagine sharing it.

Whether we are guarding the right information or giving the wrong information without compunction, the trickster, I am certain, is working through us. Possibly it is a universal law of human communication that we will create mystery where there is none. Even with "good" counsel, there is rarely clarity in our journeys, a direct route or straight line, a fast way to get there. You may as well take the advice you get. Or at least listen to it. In the end, inexact directions are shorthand for all the ways in which one can be waylaid, beset, lost, before finally arriving.

In the course of my own travels I have been sent down the wrong road too many times to count. I have been misguided, led astray, and outright lied to. But oddly enough, all this misinformation gives me hope, because it reminds me that although the landscape is for the most part fixed, our perceptions of it are not; that being on the receiving end of directions is a testament to the idiosyncratic ways in which we experience place.

We all love to be asked for our opinions and, even more, for our stories. Giving directions is a form of storytelling. When people advise you to take the longest, most complicated route, it is their way of prolonging the pleasure of the journey. Or, if you are hearing about a shortcut, you are also being let in on a secret. It doesn’t matter if you are traveling in the dead of night and you are bound to miss the turn by the railroad track and fail to see the lake; a confidence is being passed along. It is not often that we ask complete strangers for advice, but when we do, as with so many other pleas for help, we invite a certain intimacy.

To point out that we all travel down the road of life alone is a cliché, I know; nonetheless, offering directions to a stranger is a way of picking up a companion for one brief leg of the trip. On the receiving end of instructions, the traveler becomes a temporary compatriot, sharing that bit of the trip and possibly even its joys and sorrows. But these cannot be fully exchanged at a car window. So instead, you are sent off, and if it’s not on your way exactly, then their way may be worth the adventure.