Watch Where You’re Going

When I was a little kid, the little wobbly compasses dads put on their dashboards fascinated me. “Which way are we going now?”

My dad never put one in our car. “I know where I’m going.” He had a reliable sense of direction and mom could read a map, but my Aunt Martha definitely needed one — and had one — but she’d argue with it. We spent 30 minutes one rainy afternoon driving around the same four blocks in Colorado Springs because she didn’t believe her compass…

Most of the time I lived where all anyone needed to do to know which way was north was look for the mountains which were always due west. Things got a little confusing in San Diego where the mountains were to the east, and more than once in the first couple of years I lived there, with the ocean in mind (west) I turned toward the mountains (oops!) Now the mountains are in all directions, but the various ranges look distinctly different from each other.

The sun is more reliable than mountains but even that gets tricky when you can’t see the horizon, like in Switzerland or Pennsylvania. In all my hiking years (not including now which is barely hiking) I never used a compass. I knew how — know how — and I carried one but somehow? Landmarks. It seems that all my trails were out, up, down, back.

Early in my hiking life, in a dense forest — Fontenelle Forest — along the Missouri River with my 7th grade science class on a field trip — boys with Col. Smithson, girls with Mrs. Idiot — the girls got lost. Mrs. Idiot freaked out. The class fragile girl had an asthma attack, and woods person that I was, I stepped up, “I’ll find Col. Smithson.” Since I spent most of my free time wandering around in a forest that was part of THIS forest, I’d learned a LOT about getting back home for dinner. Mrs. Idiot didn’t want me to go alone, so she sent a classmate with me. Kathy Keough. Off we went. Kathy was scared. I, the intrepid “Natty Bumpo” wasn’t. This was finally fun! But Kathy insisted we stop to pray. OK. Soon after, we encountered Col. Smithson and the boys. “Can you find your way back to them?” asked the Colonel, beginning one of his interrogations.

“Are you sure?”
People really do like to stop to talk when action might be more the order of the day. I led him and the boys to Mrs. Idiot and the rest of the girls, and became a legend for a short time. “How did you do that?” asked Mrs. Idiot.


What were these landmarks? After we left the main trail, we walked along the river on rail road tracks. About halfway from the main trail to the narrow trail we took into the woods, was a dead skunk. When we left the tracks, we turned right, into the forest and began heading back toward the main trail through the trees. I knew this. I knew (because we had turned back toward the main trail) that if we just turned right, we’d hit the tracks and the river. The dead skunk would let me know about how far it was to the main trail. I didn’t think (with my 12 year old wisdom) we really needed to find the Colonel. We needed to find the bus. It was sheer coincidence that we DID run into Col Smithson. HE was furious with Mrs. Idiot for letting Kathy Keough and me leave the group. She should not have done that. Smart people stay where they are if they get lost, but…

Our nature field trip turned into something else, a lecture on safety in the forest and using a compass. Col. Smithson had been in two wars and had a lot to say about that.

There’s a theory that some people have a bit of magnetite in their noses…

Do humans have a compass in their nose?

Asked by Lee Staniforth of Manchester, UK

Some years ago scientists at CALTECH (California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) discovered that humans possess a tiny, shiny crystal of magnetite in the ethmoid bone, located between your eyes, just behind the nose.

Magnetite is a magnetic mineral also possessed by homing pigeons, migratory salmon, dolphins, honeybees, and bats. Indeed, some bacteria even contain strands of magnetite that function, according to Dr Charles Walcott of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, “as tiny compass needles, allowing them [the bacteria] to orient themselves in the earth’s magnetic field and swim down to their happy home in the mud”.

It seems that magnetite helps direction finding in animals and helps migratory species migrate successfully by allowing them to draw upon the earth’s magnetic fields. But scientists are not sure how they do this.

In any case, when it comes to humans, according to some experts, magnetite makes the ethmoid bone sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field and helps your sense of direction.

Some, such as Dr Dennis J Walmsley and W Epps from the Department of Human Geography of the Australian National University in Canberra writing in Perceptual and Motor Skills as far back as in 1987, have even suggested that this “compass” was helpful in human evolution as it made migration and hunting easier.

Following this fascinating factoid, science journalist Marc McCutcheon entitled a book The Compass in Your Nose and Other Astonishing Facts.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to


I’ve wandered compass-less in the Laguna Mountains of San Diego County for hours and always got back to my car. Maybe there’s something to the nose-compass theory. Still, it seems to be part landmarks, part sun position, part up and down. It’s cool that now we have these amazing phones that have maps, compasses and GPS. It’s uncool that they can lose their charge.

Featured photo: My brother in our local forest in Nebraska. I think I’m done with the Pearl Buck project — seriously it was getting on my nerves… I found sections that COULD appear sometime in the future — women in Chinese fiction is one of them. We’ll see.

36 thoughts on “Watch Where You’re Going

  1. He’s right that one should stay put when lost, but you were clearly not lost. I remember reading that Daniel Boone was once asked if he’d ever been lost. He was said to have answered, “nope, I’ve never been lost…but I’ve been a mite bewildered for 2-3 days.”

    • I love that! and you’re right; I wasn’t lost. It was one of my first lessons in how we evaluate other by our selves. While he was yelling at me (instead of following me back to Mrs. Idiot) I thought, “Wow. I have spent HOURS and HOURS and HOURS in this world. Just because I’m 12 doesn’t mean I’m not OK right now in this forest. I found you, didn’t I?” But you didn’t talk back to Col. Smithson. 🙂

  2. I am so directionally challenged, but I do landmarks! One time, someone was trying to give directions to me and a buddy. They were all about ‘turn east, two miles down, go west…’ My buddy and I looked at each other. “Do I turn left or right by the pink house?” Geez. That’s the way to give directions to me.
    I always figure I’m never lost; I’m just finding a new way.

  3. “Class fragile girl.” There’s always one.

    I have an excellent sense of direction. Must be the magnetite. No matter what city I’m in, someone always asks me for directions.

  4. There are some people who naturally find their way about and some who can’t find their way to a gas station three blocks away that they’ve passed every day for a year.

    Most of the people who get “lost” don’t pay any attention to the big things, let alone the little things. When they lose track of where they are, they have no mental map. They get flustered, panic sets in, and then that’s the end of reasoning their way out.

    As they say in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.”

    I wonder if the little crystal of magnetite might just be a sense we have that never gets developed anymore because we don’t use it. Maybe our paleolithic ancestors needed it on a daily basis from the day they could walk and it was very important to them.

    • I think you’re right about the magnetite. I’m pretty sure mine is pretty powerful from a lifetime of using it and setting myself challenges (as a kid!) of getting lost in the woods and getting home. It was a thing I did even as a little girl. I thought it was fun. It’s true about fear but sometimes it’s a mind-awakener like, “Holy shit, I could get this virus!”

  5. I’m directionally challenged but I am also very observant! When we are geocaching Sparky tends to forget to waymark the car but I can usually find my way back… I just need to head toward the sound of the highway and follow the fence to the stream, then it is follow the stream to the bridge and then the second star past morning!

  6. My sense of direction is terrible, so I suspect that little piece was left out when I was formed:) My grandfather had one of those compass thingies on his dashboard, and I loved it!

  7. I love this story. I think everyone has had a teacher like Mrs. Idiot (sending you & F.G. out by yourselves..crazy…but it was the “old days”). I admire your ability to know where you are going. I have no clue, no matter how hard I try. East. West. North. South. That doesn’t help me at all. Back in the day of paper maps, I needed to turn them in the direction I was going. Perhaps I wasn’t born with the nose magnetite thing. Now I know what to blame it on! 😃

  8. So that’s what they meant by “just follow your nose!” What a champ you were. My own sense of direction is pretty good but moving to the northern hemisphere for a few years messed it up, as my fundamental assumption was and is that the sun is in the north. Then (in Kyoto) there was a bank on almost every corner and mountains to the east and west. Emerging from the underground, a compass would have helped.

    • Emerging from the underground anywhere, I think. The only time I’ve been REALLY challenged has been in Switzerland and that’s a factor of how small the country is and how close everything is to everything else — where I have always lived, it’s at least 15 miles to the next town. Sometimes in Switzerland I drove right through my destinations because of that. Directions are also sketchy for me there. Italy, too. Coming out of the subway in Milan, I was disoriented several times.

      • Subways, yes : the exits spit you out any old where. I found no problem living in Geneva because the terrain includes river, lake, and Mont Saleve. But the alps : different story, true.

  9. The compass in the nose bit is fun. Thanks.
    I too wander in the woods as an adult and have yet to become lost. All the childhood practice really helps.

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