We rural Mainers many years ago would gauge distance by miles, not time.

For instance, we responded to the question, “How far is it to town?” by saying, “Oh, about three miles.”

It wasn’t until I went away to Connecticut for college did I learn that an out-of-stater’s answer to the question would be more like, “Oh, about 10 minutes.”

When we were kids and someone asked my father how to get from one place to another, he didn’t cite street names or route numbers. He’d say something like the following: “Go down this road here and when you come to the large eddy of the river, turn right and then keep going until you see the post office on the right and pretty soon you’ll be downtown.”

Giving directions was all about describing landmarks along the way — a big old oak tree, a gas station, a bend in the road.

I remember thinking it very cool, once I moved to Connecticut, to speak in terms of time away, instead of miles away. But that was only after my newly acquired friends from New York and New Jersey found it curious that I would ask how far it was to a certain place and when they responded by saying “20 minutes,” I’d ask a second question: “Yes, but how many miles away is it?”

They couldn’t quite understand why I wanted to know the distance in miles.

It took me a while to get used to the idea of figuring out how to get somewhere by following route numbers and road names, as opposed to landmarks.

Now, with global positioning systems, it’s a whole different ball game. We don’t need to learn how to follow directions; we just plug in an address and listen to the lady talk.

Of course, as we take the easy and lazy way out and use our GPS, we discover the electronic lady isn’t always entirely accurate and we must use our brains, too, when following her commands.

I still keep a Maine Atlas and Gazetteer in the trunk of my car just in case, albeit I haven’t opened it in a few years and as time marches on I wonder if I ever will. Paper maps are another item we once couldn’t live without that now are pretty much obsolete.

I find it amazing that while my father did not always know route numbers or road names, he pretty much knew Maine and New England like the back of his hand and could give descriptive directions to just about anywhere.

If he were alive today and took part in a Maine scavenger hunt and all the GPS systems went kaput, he’d be the likely winner.

He had a great sense of direction. If we traveled on back roads around and around for hours, he’d know exactly where north, south, east and west were.

Having been in the U.S. Navy, he also was good with weather and seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to predicting a storm.

“It smells like snow,” he’d say, and sure enough, we’d get a whopper of a snowstorm the next day.

I remember a story he told us about when he was a young, unmarried man and he and a couple of friends went to a dance and met some girls. The girls didn’t have a car, so after the dance, the boys drove them safely to their homes.

At one point after that, Dad’s friend who was driving took a wrong turn and they ended up lost in the willywacks.

Dad simply got out of the car, looked up at the stars and, serving as navigator, directed the driver back home. His buddies were amazed.

There’s something about the old-fashioned method for determining how to get from one place to another that is much more palatable than the idea of programming an electronic gadget. And using basic observation skills to predict weather rather than relying on a meteorologist’s complicated explanation is much more satisfying, particularly if we prove to be right.

While I still use a GPS and watch the news for weather predictions, I’m glad to know I can do without them.

I must admit that it’s pretty satisfying to drive somewhere unfamiliar and manage to get there without the use of an electronic device.

And if I smell snow in the air, and then a nor’easter blows in, I know my father taught me well.


Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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