I might as well confess it: I am geographically challenged. If you spent any time with me, you would know.
Without a map, I have a hard time remembering where many countries are. Wars and invasions educate me by necessity: I now know exactly where Ukraine is, as well as other threatened nations in the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe. But those Caribbean Islands, as well as those of the South Pacific, the countries in Asia and South America: challenging.
Even worse, I cannot immediately put my finger on some of those square states out west on our own continent. Still, if I have never been to Tahiti or Wyoming, why should I know where they are? But it gets even worse: driving west on Route 195, I can never remember which comes first, New Bedford or Fall River. Worse yet: driving up Cape I can name all the towns along the way but really can’t picture how they are exactly juxtaposed.
And I don’t need the back roads of Truro or Wellfleet to get lost. It can happen in the west end of my own town. I am in good company: no less a personage than Mary Heaton Vorse, in Time and the Town, remarked, “The two main streets are woven together with a tangle of narrow lanes so numerous no one person knows them all.” But she did not perform weekly site visits all over town, as I did, for the regulatory board I was on for 12 years. Still, I get lost!
While we’re at it: is the East End of Provincetown really east of the West End? The way the tip of the Cape curls northwest always gets me turned around. How many times has the monument saved me as I wandered out in the dunes?
In town, I have never learned to line up the street address numbers with actual places. I know the low numbers are in the west and get progressively higher going east; I know odd numbers are on the south (harbor) side and even on the north, but unless I have actually visited or lived in a place I do not know the address. I have lived in at least a half dozen places in town. That helps a bit.
Walking the beach, especially in the East End, I know every house by its particulars — its shape, shutters, window boxes, and perhaps its history — but not its exact street number. Of course, the water side of the houses used to be their fronts. They faced the water because everything depended on the water. And there were no numbers because there was no mail delivery until well into the 20th century.
Long ago, some people would occasionally pick up their houses and move them (since no one could own the land). There was no Commercial (Front) Street until 1835, and no sidewalk until 1838. Both were controversial when proposed. Bradford (Back) Street came even later: 1873. Before Commercial Street, the beach was the main artery of travel, and there were paths from one place to another.
There was a time when directions were simpler: turn left by the big red barn and take the right fork by the old oak tree. There was a time when Truro was delineated by a whale’s jawbone. And there was a time, long ago, when the Wampanoag maintained “memory holes” along trails, to delineate events of earlier generations. I would have been better suited to those times. I have a warm intimacy with this town, distilled over 50 years of walking and riding my bike through its streets. Still, I do have a deficient “mapquest” in my brain, and poor navigation skills.
But not to worry: not everything can be on a map. As Melville said in Moby-Dick, “True places never are.”