When I first began jogging, I bobbled desultorily down the bike paths and sidewalks of our sleepy college town, oblivious to how passing motorists perceived me. But in the ensuing two decades, I have surmised that there must be something distinctive in my bearing, some nuance of gait that says I know where I'm headed. Perhaps my straight-ahead gaze suggests long acquaintance with my surroundings. Maybe I appear certain of my destination because I seem to be hurrying toward it.
I do know the lay of this land - its streets and avenues, parks and putting greens. By now, I've traversed most of the less-traveled roads. I can even tell you the distance from City Hall to the roller-skating rink, accurate to within a kilometer.
Yet there's probably a more prosaic reason that harried families in minivans, sedate matrons in luxury sedans, and construction workers in cement mixers pull alongside me so frequently, asking how to find the stadium, the interstate, or Grand Avenue. I'm accessible and approachable; I'm there when they need me; I'm a regular roving kiosk of roadside information.
Upon being hailed, I pride myself on delivering directions within seconds. "Proceed another mile," I pant, jogging in place. "Turn left on Vine. The mall's on the right, just past the Pump n' Pay."
But precision is as vital as concision. I avoid saying "right" when I mean "correct." I don't addle these disoriented drivers by detailing Byzantine shortcuts. I learned long ago that one large, garish landmark - say, the giant syrup bottle outside the pancake emporium - can help lost drivers regain their bearings better than guesstimated distances or compass-based directives.
Nevertheless, a recent incident made me question whether dispensing directions is truly my raison d'etre. As I strolled to my car after a concert one muggy Sunday afternoon, a strapping lad in a pickup truck pulled into the parking lot, leaned out his window, and beckoned frantically to me. "Ma'am? Could you help me a minute?" His distress was apparent.
As I approached, he proffered what appeared to be a map and said, "I'm lost, and I'm afraid I'll be late."
Attached to his map was a letter that read, "Dear Billy: Welcome to the university's summer football camp!" The inside address revealed that Billy hailed from a small town several counties away. This was probably his first solo trip to my community and its sprawling campus.
According to Billy's sketchy, not-to-scale map, Willow Residence Hall was his destination. Although familiar with the campus, I couldn't precisely visualize this dorm's location. But surely I'd passed it many times. Then I remembered that on this particular day, I had wheels instead of sneakers. "Follow me," I told Billy. "I'll lead you there!"
"That would be great!" he said, relief rinsing his flushed features like rainwater.
Feeling motherly, I returned to my auto, Billy's map in hand. Towing his truck on an invisible tether, I exited the lot and turned right onto a thoroughfare.
Within minutes, we turned left. Sure enough, a large dormitory complex loomed. I turned onto a one-way loop that flanked these residence halls, glancing at my mirror to keep Billy in my sights. But upon completing the loop, we'd found no Willow Hall.
I parked and walked back to Billy; together we reexamined his map. "We may have passed it," I said. "Let's scoop the loop again."
Looking anxious anew, Billy nonetheless agreed.
The second time around, I tallied a veritable taxonomy of tree dorms: Linden, Maple, Elm, Larch ... but still no Willow. Somewhat at a loss (but loath to declare myself lost), I took a deep breath. Drawing on decades of navigation experience, I finally saw what I must do. Pulling over and lowering my window, I hailed an athletic-looking man striding purposefully down the sidewalk.
"Sir?!" I called. He glanced up. "Could you direct me to Willow Hall?"
He could; he did. With Billy bearing down on my bumper, I exited the loop, drove one block south to Beach Street, then entered a parking lot by an eight-story dormitory that towered over everything, barely a football field's length east of the loop we'd been circling.
I hopped out and scurried toward Billy's truck once more, amid a swarm of aspiring young athletes toting registration packets and duffel bags.
"You're here!" I exclaimed. "Just park and follow that sign, 'Football camp registration,' " I added.
Billy thanked me as though he were Dorothy and I'd just shown him the Yellow Brick Road. I almost said, "No problem!" then shook his hand and said, "You're welcome. Have a good week."
It was humbling to realize that my familiar old town can still pose a route-related riddle now and then. Henceforth, when motorists entrust me with their fate, I'll advise them first of all to plan on being late.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor