From where you are sitting or standing, do you know which way is north? Some people can point to it immediately; others will think about where the sun sets and rises and eventually get it right, while still others will have no idea. I am in the category of people who always knows where north is. I even take that a bit further—I need to know where north is. You can ask me at any time or place and I will know immediately. If someone wakes me up from a dead sleep, I could point north. In fact, I think I sleep better if my bed is oriented north-south. I can compromise if necessary and put it east-west, but for my peace of mind the principle of cardinality must be maintained. If you think I am a bit whacky, I can assure you that I am in good company. I grew up in the Midwest where town designers had the good sense to follow the Township and Range System, enacted in 1785 after Congress passed the Land Ordinance Act, so that nearly every street in every town and all the buildings are in line with the cardinal directions. A railroad track, lake or river occasionally throws off the beautiful symmetry, but it usually takes just a few streets to pull it back on grid.
This odd and usually harmless obsession with north has been with me as long as I can remember. I was ten years old when I visited, completely by accident, a monument entitled, “Half Way North.” The monument marks the 45th parallel halfway between the equator and the North Pole. My fascination with north and directionality may not have started when I first saw the monument, on a turnout on Highway 41 between Crivitz and Beaver, Wisconsin, but the visit locked it in place. Up until that point, in the pre-internet days, I felt alone with the obsession that I learned I shared with Frank E. Noyes, who erected the monument in 1938. I now know that there are many monuments to commemorate the 45th parallel, but for some reason Mr. Noyes established three such sites near my boyhood home.
I came across the monument on Highway 41 as my dad and I were on the way to a Green Bay to attend the first Packer game of the 1970 season, which was a tradition and the highlight of my year. I screamed for him to stop the car. The combination of rolling hills, runny eggs for breakfast, and the excitement of the day, turned me green. I got out of the car, ran behind the six-foot high rock monument, fell to my knees and barfed. Once the heaving was over, I looked up at the monument, which is an official looking bronze plaque set in a large triangle-shaped rock. At the top of the plaque is a partial globe marked with lines of latitude and longitude. The sign reads:
Half Way North
Latitude 45 degrees 8’ 45.7”
Erected by Frank E. Noyes (1938)
We had driven past the monument many times but never noticed it. It is easy to miss, nestled against some trees in front of a simple gravel turnout. A recent visit to the site finds it virtually unchanged. I do not know how many people actually stop at the site, but it nonetheless sits there proudly (and oddly) marking this geographical locale.
Frank E Noyes was the President and Editor of the Daily Eagle, a prominent newspaper at the time for northern Wisconsin centered in the city of Marinette. He was born in April 1856 and died on November 28, 1941. His father, a Civil War veteran, started the newspaper but Frank turned it into a daily and made it more successful. He was 78 years old when he erected three such monuments on prominent north-south roads that passed near Marinette. The first is near the town of Peshtigo and is labeled, “Theoretical Halfway Point,” as it is located exactly on the 45th parallel. Frank obviously realized that the earth is not a perfect sphere, and to mark the exact halfway point between the equator and North Pole he would have to tweak the location a bit as the 45th parallel is not exactly halfway between the North Pole and the equator. For some reason Frank found it more satisfying to mark the location of the exact halfway point rather than the 45th parallel as the next two monuments make the correction, 45° 8’ 45.7”.
Why was Frank Noyes so obsessed with the halfway point and the 45th parallel to move him to erect three monuments at great personal expense? He was well known locally for his leadership of the local Masonic Chapter and his affiliation with the Scottish Rite, for which he reached the 32nd degree, with the 33rd degree being the highest. These groups seemed a little obsessed with the 33rd degree and the 33rd parallel, so perhaps Frank’s monuments are somehow the result of this affiliation. The fact that he put the first monument on the 45th parallel and then the next two on the exact halfway point between the equator and the North Pole suggest to me that Frank’s monuments were erected for another reason. He was obsessed with his own placement on our globe.
When I barfed on the halfway point and literally knelt before this monument, I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Frank E. Noyes. Although he died nearly two decades before I was born, I was relieved to know that there was someone else in this world a bit obsessed with the cardinal directions and, in particular, north.
It always surprises me, and I suspect surprised Frank too, to learn that some people have little sense or concern for the cardinal directions. I have been with family or friends on many occasions and we look at a map to find a store or some destination and someone says, “Which way is north?” It startles me every time that people can live perfectly happy lives but exist in this state of disorientation.
There are also extremes. Some people admit that they have “no sense of direction.” You probably know people like this. I had a dear friend, now deceased, who was very successful in life but suffered from severe directional disorientation. I spent some time with him in Manila in the Philippines. We would often have breakfast at the same place and each day when we exited onto the street he would look both ways and ask, “Which way back to the hotel?” The thought of this level of disorientation terrified me. When I would ask him about it he would simply say, “I always find my way back, and many times get to see different parts of town.” Certainly, he and I are at extremes regarding our concern with directionality. Since he always got to where he wanted to go, and often stumbled upon new sites because of his wandering, clearly there is not a right or wrong attitude towards direction awareness.
There are negative sides, however, to both extremes. Without any sense of direction, it is easy to get disoriented, especially without a compass or GPS, which many of us carry with us all the time today. My friend and I are both archaeologists, and we often find ourselves in remote locations or unfamiliar territories—no innate sense of direction is a handicap in these situations.
The problem with my obsession is that it bothers me to become even mildly disoriented. This is easy to do especially when traveling to a new place. I find it easy to maintain my internal compass when driving, but flying into a new city provides different challenges. Not long after we were married, Becky and I flew into San Francisco for a short holiday. The city has many charms but the individuals who designed it did not understand that roads should travel in the cardinal directions as God intended. Air travel followed by circuitous streets of the Golden Gate City left my sense of cardinal directions completely inverted. When I woke up on the first morning and saw what appeared to be the sun rising in the west, I felt like I had gone down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. My attempt to try and explain this profound discomfort to Becky was met with a look of concern. Since that time I have tried to keep this issue to myself (until now) and to do a little homework before flying into a new city.
Days before I take off I will study maps of my destination, the direction of the runways, the roads leading out of the airport to the hotel and other relevant clues so that I can maintain my directionality in the unfamiliar city. When I get to a hotel in a new city, I pay attention as I go into the elevator, exit on my floor, and then enter my room, careful to keep track of which way is north. I had to fly to Paris a few years ago, and when I first looked at the map of the city, which does not seem to have any streets that run in the cardinal directions, blood drained from my head. I was relieved to know that my hotel’s front faced roughly west. Upon arrival, I distracted myself from directionality discomfort by speaking to the cab driver for the long drive from Charles De Gaulle Airport to the front of my hotel, where I found, thankfully, that the sun was setting in the right spot.
There are, of course, some real advantages to my obsession. As an archaeologist, maintaining spatial orientation when doing fieldwork is critical. I find it wonderfully satisfying that archaeological methods require a grid over all of our excavations with orientations north-south, east-west. When I travel with family or friends to new places and we need to get back to the hotel, I can always be counted on to find our way back. In the unlikely event of a zombie attack the need to flee, I would like to think that I could lead the way without walking in circles. Most of the time, however, my cardinality obsession is expressed in much more subtle ways.
When we cleared the spot for our new house, our builder came out with the handful of stakes and a tape to create the layout. The usual way to orient a house on a lake is in alignment with the shoreline. The builder grabbed one end of the tape and I grabbed the other. He pulled the tape so that it aligned with the shoreline. Something seemed off so I pulled out my trusty Silva Ranger compass. The tape was oriented at 330 degrees, a full 30 degrees off true north. I adjusted my end of the tape so that it was at 360 degrees. He gave me a strange look. Even I could see that a 360-degree alignment would invite scrutiny from others. This would be the only house on a lake that was not aligned with the shore. I compromised and pulled the tape slowly to the west to 347 degrees. The house is far enough back from the lake so the slightly skewed orientation is not noticeable on the ground, but from the air one can see that it does not directly face the lake. It was a compromise made for aesthetics, and our house is generally oriented in the cardinal directions so it does not bother me too much. Besides, my La-Z-Boy chair makes the correction so that I can put my feet up and relax knowing that I am pointed true north.
This is an excerpt from my (in progress) book that focuses on other people and places where True North is important. This includes discussions of early mariners, mapmakers, and those fixated on north for religious reasons, like the people of the late prehistoric period of the American Southwest. I will even have a section on ethics and morality (moral compass). I invite you, in the comment section, to include your own take on north or directionality.