Lost and Found
Even a virtual human compass can drive in circles in New Hampshire

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, April 8, 2007

Among my many gifts is a sense of direction bordering on the superhuman. I'm sea-turtle-good when it comes to orientation. I read the textures of the terrain, see the drainage patterns, study the moss on the trees and the motion of migratory birds. I decline to pay attention to road signs or maps, as they are much less accurate than a star chart and a sextant.

There is abundant information about one's location that can be gleaned from a fresh specimen of roadkill, simply by examining the contents of the stomach. Many times I've concluded, "Based on what's left of the armadillo, we must be in Georgia."

My sense of direction is a source of pride in part because, over the years, I have been surrounded by the directionally challenged -- by charter members of the Disorientariat. I have close friends who, given north, south and east, could not give you west. My friend Jeff has won about 13 Pulitzer Prizes even though he can't go from his front door to his car without following a trail of bread crumbs. And Weingarten: You know why he works in that basement bunker. Can't get lost.

Whereas, you could blindfold me, take me to a strange place far from home, spin me around four times, remove the blindfold, and within 10 minutes I would still be able to find not only a Starbucks but also the anti-Starbucks groovy-person alternative coffee bistro where the barista has all the cutting-edge facial piercings.

Unless, that is, I was in New Hampshire. Then all bets would be off. New Hampshire, as I recently remembered while chasing after presidential candidates, is the You're Now Completely Lost State. To say one is lost in New Hampshire is to speak redundantly, like saying, "Recently, I was gambling in Vegas" or, "Recently, I was hanging out in cafes in Paris and pretending to be more intellectual than I really am." New Hampshire was apparently created before the invention of the right angle. The roads wriggle and dip and stagger their way through forests and small towns and places where "quaint" is another way of saying they never learned how to lay out things on a grid. It's the opposite of Iowa, where, as Dave Barry once pointed out, you ask for directions, and someone will say, "You go down to that stop sign there, take a right, go for, let's see, about 140 miles, and you can't miss it."

As a journalist, you struggle to recall how you found the important political events in New Hampshire before MapQuest came along. But even MapQuest must find New Hampshire maddening. To get to one recent event, the computer told me to take Interstate 293 to Route 101 to Route 125 to U.S. 4 to Madbury Road to Knox Marsh Road, which would become Route 9, then go right on Route 108 and right on Portland and a slight right onto Cocheco and a left onto Gulf and a right onto . . . And, of course, you get lost. And feel doubts. There's nothing out here. There's no campaign. You see a sign saying "Moose Crossing" but nothing saying "Candidate Crossing." You're far from home, in a cheap rented Malibu, with coffee cups and newspapers and MapQuest printouts littering the floor, and the windows crusty with road spray, and it crosses your mind that perhaps you're lost in some grander sense.

That maybe you took a wrong turn years ago. That perhaps . . . Wait! There it is! Up ahead, materializing by magic, are the campaign bus, the TV cameras, the responsible citizenry and even the candidate himself, radiating the confidence of a man for whom the fear of being lost has been delegated to staff.

The treeing of the fox is never so much fun as the hunt itself. When we look back on life, we remember not the arrivals so much as the journeys. We forget everything that was on the official schedule and remember the strange encounter that never was supposed to happen. We remember being lost.

If all goes as planned, the Granite State will vote early next year and try to point the country in the right direction. And the rest of us will try not to get lost again.

Editor's note: Joel Achenbach's Magazine column is going on hiatus until fall. In the meantime, you'll find his writing on Sundays in the Outlook section and on weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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