August 16, 2022

How I Discovered a Compass was a Must – John LaPlante

I recently came home after visiting my son Arthur and his family just outside Ft. Lauderdale. That’s on the Atlantic side of Florida.

While there, they took me to Naples on the opposite side of the peninsula. To the west, on the  Gulf Coast.  We took I-75, which darts across the Everglades. . It’s the fast route. In fact, it seems the only route.

As we rode along, I reminded them what happened when I made this trip 20 years ago. What a crazy experience! They laughed and laughed

No sailor goes to sea without a compass. Well, nobody should set out on a long car trip without one, either. I found out the hard way.

I was on my big solo trip around the U.S. in my Volkswagen microbus, Dandelion. I called her  that because of her  warm sunny color. I had come to Ft. Lauderdale to visit them.

Here I am 20 years ago, setting out solo on my grand circle trip around the U.S. That mistake I made in the Everglades was a doozy.

Very pleasant. On my final morning I said goodbye at 7 and hopped onto I-75 west. It’s called Alligator Alley. So-called because plenty of gators in the Glades plus other wildlife. I left early because I wanted to dart across the peninsula to get to Naples on the Gulf Coast by mid morning. It was overcast. I like sunshine but the gray sky would make my driving easier.

The interstate was smooth, straight, and fast. And dull. It cut right through the Glades like an arrow. Swamps stretched far back on both sides.

Arthur had told me I’d probably spot gators resting on the shore at the side of the highway and I kept looking. How exciting that would have been. Nothing. The grassy vastness of the famous swamp was relieved now and then by tiny isles with a few trees. Boring.

So my only interest was in getting to Naples fast and enjoying the interesting Gulf Coast.

An hour out, half way across,  I came to a cloverleaf. On the left I could see a shopping center. A bit of civilization. Time for a break. I found a coffee shop. Enjoyed my coffee. Then stretched my legs checking out the few stores. In 30 minutes I was back on I-75. Still gray and gloomy. I’d make Naples easily by 10. Good.

I drove another hour. The Everglades stretched on but were getting more built up now. Finally I reached the outskirts of Naples and kept a sharp eye for road signs. I saw one coming up. I-95, it said.

I-95! But I-95 isn’t on the Gulf Coast. It’s on the east coast—the Atlantic. How could this be?

I was shocked when I found out. What I had done, of course, was make a wrong turn back onto I-75 after my coffee break. I had headed east instead of west. I had made a 180-degree mistake! I was right back in Ft. Lauderdale!  The clouds had hidden the sun. And there were no shadows.  Nothing to tip me off to my mistake.

I was too embarrassed to call Arthur and tell him.

I noticed a Sears. I went right in and bought an auto compass. $4.95—I remember. Mounted it on my dashboard. Then headed west again. Now I’d be lucky to get to Naples by mid afternoon.

What a little wonder that compass turned out to be. I‘d steer left and its needle would turn right. If I swung right, tt would compensate by moving left. It fascinated me.

Serious navigators would worry about deviation and variation. I was curious. Did  its needle always point north? I thought it might be affected up there on the dashboard by all the steel of Dandelion around it and the electronic stuff, too.I ran a little test.

I placed it on the seat beside me.  There would be less interference there. The needle spun wildly for a few seconds, then settled down. Same direction as before. Good. But  heck, what difference would a small deviation make? Very minor.

You are probably saying to yourself, “Baloney! I’ve been driving for years. I’ve never needed a compass! Will never need one!”

But I must tell your something. My compass turned out to be practical in other ways than just keeping me headed in the right direction in Dandelion. One example:

Let’s stay I’ve stopped at a restaurant in a suburb of a big city. Full, I return to my car. I want to get into the city. I’m confused. Which way? My map tells me that downtown is northeast. But which was is northeast? Instantly my compass shows me.

I pick a road that makes sense.

Abroad I carry a little compass in my pocket.  I decide to go visit a park. My map shows me it is southwest. I choose a trolley, say, heading that way. It twists and turns for 30 minutes and when we’re close, I get off. I stroll through the park and enjoy it. Exit by a different gate.  How to get back to where I started?

Well, I had traveled southwest. Now I know I should travel northeast. That’s valuable info. So I make sure I take a trolley going as close to northeast as possible.

Back then I wondered. Our cars came equipped with so many wonderful gizmos. Why not a compass as standard equipment?  I don’t know.

All this took place  years ago. Auto compasses are still available, I’m sure. But there’s been a wonderful new invention. I’ll bet you’ve thought of it already. The GPS highway navigation system! You may own one. So many people do. I don’t. But telling you about this reminds me that I should. A Garmin or Tomtom or Magellan. So many brands. For my next big road trip!