Can you go home for the holidays?

Having filed grades and extricated myself from the demands of my job, at least temporarily, I have come with my better half and offspring to the stomping grounds of my better half's youth.

Well, kind of.

The grandparents-who-lurk-but-seldom-comment actually live a couple towns over from where they did when my better half still lived at home. In fact, they only moved from that house a few years ago, so I'm much more familiar with the immediate vicinity of the childhood home than I am with the environs of the current house.

But we do this thing that folks in this part of the country are reputed never to do: we walk. Which means that our familiarity with the area amounts to something like having a good mental map of the place generated by walking around it. The new place and the old place are more or less in the same walking range (although on opposite edges of that range), so lately we've been filling in more of the details of this edge of the range.

As we were walking yesterday, it occurred to me that the mental maps I've generated on foot seem much more robust and reliable than those I've generated by driving a car. I was barely three years out of college when I returned to visit a professor at her home and discovered that the off-campus geography hardly matched my memory at all. Without departing from my planned route at all, I felt hopelessly lost. The sense of place I'd had from driving around the area while still in college just hadn't stuck to my brain. Those memories just couldn't be trusted. (Driving around the New Jersey town where I grew up -- indeed, where I spent the eleven years before I went off to college -- leaves me similarly disoriented.)

Behind the wheel, it's a similar situation in these parts, but I think the difficulty is enhanced by the breakneck rate at which the area has been developed and redeveloped. The landmarks that you might use to orient yourself while driving from one place to another keep changing. The home you might try to come back to turns into a different place while you're away.

The view changes for those of us on foot, too. But there are some parts of the terrain that seems pretty stable. You can build different stuff by the ocean, but the ocean's still there, and the good walking routes near the ocean don't change all that much.

I wonder whether it's the slower rate at which you move past the changing landscape, or the physical activity invested in walking past it (rather than being carried past it by an automobile) that etches the mental map more deeply.

Whatever it is, there's a definite difference I feel between driving around and walking around. In the car, I know that I'm not from here. On foot, at least to a limited extent, I am at home.

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Hull did a couple of neat experiments where he carted rats around in a maze instead of them running by themselves. Turns out that the less you have to actively choose yourself, the worse is your spatial learning. I guess that when we're walking, we keep having to do decisions at a small scale a few steps at a time - about where to go next, so we create a fairly dense network of place and feature associations. When you're driving, you're mostly just going along a single enforced route with only the occasional decision point, so your spatial feature network remains sparse and easily disconnected if a few features change.

I never left the home town. Am I a freak?

As a student I lived with my parents (with the obvious nuisances and economic benefits) and bicycled to my University. Today I live closer, I could walk. I could walk to a few others as well. Europe is built for people, not cars.

I still navigate by the landmarks, not the street names. Ask a name, and I tell you to look at your map.

(A joke about Ixtlan was meant to be here, but the dwerfs stole it.)

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 24 Dec 2007 #permalink

Hmmm... perhaps my directional impairment has to do with having lived my entire life in a bedroom community. There's nothing to walk to, and you can't even walk to public transportation to get to anything. If one of the landmarks I use to navigate is changed or removed, I wouldn't realize how lost I was until I had gone for the amount of time in which I expected to see my next landmark.
Also, driving around New Jersey in general is disorienting. I've been working in NJ for a few months once a week, and I had yet to figure out how to get in to a certain shopping center on my way home. I can only get in on the way there. I also don't know how to get from the place I work to where my sister lives, which is no more than 15 minutes away.

You really don't get a sense of the land unless you walk it. People these days have no real idea of what a mile is. The length of it, how much ground a square mile covers. We keep hearing that the Earth is this teeny little place, never made aware of just how much smaller we are compared to the world we live on.

I once came up with an exercise people could try to get an idea of just how big a square mile is. What you do is mark out the boundaries of a square mile. Then, starting from the northeast corner, you walk in a straight line to the northwest corner. Then you step one foot south and walk back. Keep doing this until you've walked every square foot of that square mile. A journey of some 5,280 miles. Well before then you'd hope a person would realize something he'd never known before.

But then a smartass came up with a formula, and thought it would do what walking that square mile was supposed to do. Really had no idea of what he was talking about.

My point is, there are times when you do have to do the work. Shortcuts, cheating, being clever won't do it, you have to walk the land.