5 Ways to Get to Know Your Area

Or, "What I Learned on Late Night Drives"

How well do you know your hometown? Do you know all the ins & outs, the shortcuts, and the hidden gems of your area? Could you serve as a tour guide? Or do you spend all your time in one part of your hometown? If so, you're not alone. It is remarkable how many people don't know their area very well, whether abroad or on the homefront. But it doesn't have to stay that way. There are different ways a person can remedy this and get more comfortable with their environment...and themselves.

So what can you do? Let's start basic...

#1 - Learn How to Read a Map...No, Really

The GPS and Google Directions era has been great. Never have we been this technologically advanced with this much general access to the toys that make life easier. There is, however, a downfall to this. As we continue to rely more and more on technology, we are losing our ability to do things without said technology. Frankly, I'm concerned by how many people don't know how to read a map. I'm not talking about following Siri's instructions or turning where Google shows us. This is more about basic awareness.

Now, it may sound obvious, but buying a map is a great foundation. That's right. A paper (or laminated) foldable map. Yes, you could pull up Google and move around on the map using your cursor, but it doesn't do so great in giving you big picture and details at the same time. City and area/state maps are geared toward this. Now, once you have your map, spread that sucker out and check the legend (or map key). [Am I the only one that thinks it's cool that this is called a "legend"? Road trip just went from basic to epic. Gather the Fellowship and cue the music.] Get to know what the symbols mean. You should be able to tell the difference between major highways, interstates, and things like toll roads and train tracks. This can be important even when dealing with construction. In addition to the legend, chances are good that you will find basic stats about your city and features like: 
  • population
  • square miles
  • scale markers in miles and kilometers
  • index corresponding to latitudinal and longitudinal points marked on the border of the map
  • smaller inset maps for specific and more detailed areas
Now, explore: find your base point. This can be your house, work, hostel, etc. Pull back to look at the map as a whole. How big is this city? Where is your base in relation to everything else? Awareness is more than knowing your thoughts and emotions. Being aware of where you are in time and space is a major component of martial arts training, and yes, a map can help with that.

From here, break it down. You can discern major boroughs: neighborhoods and districts. Check out major landmarks like government buildings, parks, historical monuments, universities, shopping centers, religious buildings, business districts, and recreational locations. Go to your basepoint again and other areas you frequent for work, school, children, etc., and do the same. Then look at the map as a whole again. You should be starting to get comfortable with where things are in your town.

Now this doesn't mean analog is better than digital, and it doesn't mean we should all become technophobes. You don't have to memorize every single street, carry a compass, or use a sundial. Paper maps have their limitations, too, after all. A paper map doesn't tell you how bad traffic is, but your experience, and knowledge of the type of area will give you a pretty good idea. In a parallel, you may remember the fervor from parents and educators in the last couple decades that kids are growing up not knowing how to do basic math because they rely on their calculators too much. A lot of these folks wanted to do away with calculators in the classroom, but that only causes more problems. In fact, this article illustrates the material point: technology is good; fluency of concepts in conjunction with technology is better.

Now you could stop here and have a great foundation. Google maps will definitely make a lot more sense, and you would need to rely less on GPS and other navigation systems. However, to get a deeper understanding of your area, gain greater independence, and get a lot more out of your area, I encourage you to read on.

#2 - Learn Where Your North Is

Many aboriginal peoples believed that if you didn't know where you were directionally, you were spiritually lost. The concept of the "seven directions" included not only the four (north, south, east, west) but also up (zenith), down (nadir), and in, to look at the self.

Now, if you've been checking out a map, you should be getting a sense of what is in any particular direction. As you get used to your surroundings in a city, you should be able to orient yourself in terms of what is north, south, east, and west of you. The major orientation for centuries has been north. Sailors and explorers would use the North Star (Polaris) to guide them in their voyages. So, if you can generally tell where north is no matter where you are, you are doing pretty well, right? But how to do that?

Knowing your streets is a great way. Consult your map for this. Most cities are set up as a grid. Streets tend to be laid out west-east and north-south (left-right and up-down on maps). In Austin, descending street numbers go South; in Omaha, they go east. Numbered streets tend to be crossed by either lettered streets, or "main" street names. Learn these distinctions. Understanding the streets in relation to each other helps a great deal. But what if you're inside? Knowing which direction is north in every room of where you're staying gets you used to finding it when you walk into other buildings, even ones with hallways that act like mazes. In this way you can know "your north."

Also, an interesting bit: settlements tend to happen near water, so downtown and business districts, having been in development the longest, tend to be nearest the water. As you move farther from the water, business districts tend to yield to suburbs, and finally rural. In the Western world, exploration has typically happened East to West. This has created a rather frustrating phenomenon whereby 8-to-5 commuters tend to be heading straight into the morning sun's glare and catch the afternoon sun in their face. Good rule of thumb? Always live east of your job.

#3 - Take Late Night Drives

I grew up and learned to drive in the farming countryside of Iowa. Learning to drive on gravel is terrifying, but it helped me get safer fast. Once I started college, I was driving a 40 minute one-way commute to get to class every day. Once I moved "into town," I was able to indulge in my restless nocturnal nature a little more, and I began taking late night drives around the city. It was brilliant. All the confusing and stressful aspects of daytime traffic were gone! I could take my time without someone honking at me because I wasn't going fast enough for their liking. Along the way, I got to know major roads all over my city. I was able to figure out where a particular lane ended, see how to get around construction the easiest, find fast side routes to the main streets. It made daytime driving much easier. I didn't even know what I was doing at that time, but later, I realized how all these aspects had combined with my late night drives to familiarize myself with the area. When people started giving me directions to get somewhere I would ask them what the major cross streets were. From there, it was easy to take a couple turns here and there and arrive at my destination, sometimes without once having to consult a map (this was long before Google maps and smartphones). 

And the night...well, the quiet is the best part. Streets were deserted...they were mine. A lot of times I would just drive and think. It helped sort out creative dilemmas, relationships, and made a great break from studying. It also kept my wanderlust at bay, which kept me from going nuts. I didn't know that at the time, but there it was.

Even if you aren't going to stay up as late as I did, you can still wait until rush hour and the dinner crowd have gone home. 8p is the time most traffic starts dying down. You might think it's not safe to drive in some areas at night, but it's not as bad as you might think. For the most part, you are driving through and, as long as you don't throw shade at any cars that happen to be out with you, no one cares what you're doing. Which brings me to #4...

#4 - Get Comfortable with Crime

Bear with me on this one, because I'm not saying you should be okay with people getting murdered and attacked, or having their stuff stolen. "Crime" is a general heading that encompasses things as harmless as street art (yes, art is sometimes considered a crime). What I hope is that you will get to know when areas are labeled dangerous because they actually are, and when it is mostly hype and institutional racism. 

One way to check this out is to find crime mapping sites, like and see where the dangerous stuff is happening. Some are even put together by local news sources. This way you can circumvent the paranoia that comes with...well, living in this world. The best part of this to my mind is discovering how safe your area isn't. A lot of times, we think a particular neighborhood is known for being safe, and have no idea that things like assaults and rape are frequent occurrences. It's better to know than speculate.

#5 - Get Out of the House

Hopefully, when you were exploring your map, you were noting things you wanted to visit. Before I moved out of Austin, I spent three months with a friend in South Austin. When I took a peek at the neighborhood I was staying in, I found out that an incredibly cool writing/workshop space was only a block from where I was living. In all of the groups, meetups, and event sites I had consulted, I never came across this place in the fourteen years I lived in Austin. I signed up for one of the writing days, and it was so good that I hope to plan my trips back to Austin around these monthly events.

Even if you don't have a lot of interesting things in your immediate vicinity, you're not stuck. Get a friend/host to show you around or make suggestions. Find your favorite restaurants, bars, stores, etc., from previous places and go to ones that aren't near you. (This also helps when giving directions to others.) is pretty good for finding cool groups to learn and socialize. And check out local calendars for new events. Some of my most interesting adventures happened because I ventured into a part of town I was unfamiliar with....and, I don't mean adventures of the "oh god, oh god, we're all going to die" variety.

So get out there and explore! It'll make you more independent, more aware, a safer driver, a better host in your own town, and more likely to get the most out of the places you visit.

Bonus - Getting to Know Some Rural Areas

I'm aware that I didn't talk much about exploring more rural and wilderness landscapes. In some ways, the above information is helpful, but you should also have some basic skills such as understanding terrain/topography and how to use a compass. I came across this helpful article, and intend to use it myself to freshen and strengthen my own skills. 

To Glory!

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