Get lost – a reflection on journeys around a home town

This week, Barry Hill is back giving his reflections on orientation and journeying around his home town. This is a brilliant and amusing reflection of his experiences and I know many of us can relate to these all too well.  Thanks again Barry for a fantastic article:

Get lost

By Barry Hill

When I first went blind, I went to a school for the blind in Liverpool and would have liked to have stayed living there (Liverpool, not the school), but it was just too big. I could have probably managed it given time, but I felt that compact would suit my future outlook, or literal lack of it. So, I came back to my little home town that I know as well as the back of my hand. Got to say that the back of my hand has scars from my accident that I haven’t seen, and they’re much older and more worn than they were when I last saw them, pretty much the same as my home town really.

Despite the attempts of the town council to confuse and confound me, I still know my way around well enough to guide sighted people. I think it’s a natural thing for blind people to quickly develop a mental map, a sort of 3-D moving map in the head. I suppose it’s like my own GPS system but without getting Lorries stuck under bridges. As I walk, the map moves with me, or do I move with the map? Well, regardless, I usually know where I am. It even works in cars if I concentrate or am being driven by a taxi driver who I always get the feeling believes he knows better than I do where I live.

However, there are times when I can still get lost in my town centre. There’s one particular place where I do regularly get lost. My town has a very nice grade 2 Victorian indoor market. It’s made up of stalls in a grid pattern with walkways between. There are three sets of doors across the top and bottom, and one at either side. In the middle is a large, round stall, and this is where my problem lies. It’s pretty easy for me to judge how far along a straight line I’ve gone, so I can usually know where I am on the grid lines, but I just can’t get the hang of figuring out how far around that magic roundabout I go. When I think I’ve gone far enough around I head off along one of the walkways, hoping I’m going the way I think I’m going. But, when I think I’m going north, for example, I am really going west. It’s like your cars satnav suddenly turning 90 degrees. You would be happily driving along the A339 ringroad around Basingstoke when your satnav suddenly tells you that Milton Keynes is straight ahead. Yeah, frightening. I mean, who would voluntarily go to Milton Keynes? You’d think I’d be sorted once I reached a door. Oh no. Outside, there is a precinct area to two sides, and roads to the other two sides, so I've still got a 50/50 chance of being lost.

It’s not just Florence, Zebedee and Dougal who get me lost; I can get lost on my own quite easily. It’s usually through inattention. I’ll be sauntering along as much as a blind man with a guide dog can saunter, thinking about where I need to go after I've been to where I'm going or about where I've just been and totally forgetting to keep a check on where I am. I’ll cross a side road and suddenly wonder if that was the side road I needed to go down or whether that one is coming up. That’s it. I'm lost.

Some days when this happens (I say that as if it happens often), I toy with the idea of just letting my dog guide me where ever he likes and see where I end up. Thing with this plan is that I know that I will end up at the pet shop on the precinct. All my dogs make for this place with the instinct of a champion racing pigeon. Still, it’s useful for when I'm feeling particularly anti-social or for the time that there’s been a mass exodus of every human who I might be able to stop and ask where I am.

A few days ago, I was trotting along nicely with my guide dog, not paying attention to where I was, and suddenly realised that the road I had just come up to shouldn't be where it was. Well, of course, it was me who wasn't where I thought I was. So, being pretty well screwed as to where I was, I asked a passer-by where I was. His reply was an accurate but not very helpful, “You’re in Halifax.”

This is just the town centre that I know oh so well. When I first moved to where I live now, I got lost here a couple of times. I knew the way to the road I live on, but that’s where I get a little grey. I think I came here once way back when I was a mere stripling of a lad, and I've been drunk once or twice since then. One day, I came home with my first trusty guide dog, Uska, and set him off to find home at the beginning of the road I live on, or so I thought. You could do that with guide dogs back then – Say, “Find home” when near enough for them to figure it and they’d, well, find home. Don’t know why that’s not part of the training any more. Maybe it is and I've just not used it. {Mental note to Barry – Teach Chester ‘find home’} Anyway, back to my story of Uska finding my home, or not. It wasn't long before he started going uphill. My road runs along the hillside so is flat, so I made him go back and tried a slightly different route. Nope, he tried taking me up the hill again. I tried changing course more and he took me to a step. That really wasn't right. I turned around and he started taking me down an alley. This really was alien territory for me, so I concluded very calmly that I was lost. Well, when I say calmly, is it inappropriate for a grown man to cry like a little boy lost in the woods?

As it turned out, the hill was on the bend just at the start of my road, the alley was just after the first house in my row, and the steps are almost directly opposite my house. Sigh. Poor dog was doing his job admirably and the stupid human was screwing it.

Thing is, these are stories about me getting lost in my home town or near my own home. If I go somewhere unfamiliar on my own, somewhere out of town, I'm like a Tory politician being asked to explain the austerity measures without hesitation, deviation or twisting the truth to make it more palatable for us prolls – totally lost. Yeah, I've got technology to help me out, like the excellent Maps on my iPhone, but what if I lose signal? It’s bad enough losing my mental GPS in the market, the thought of losing the real thing in an unfamiliar place just stops me from trying in the first place.

I take my hat, gloves and scarf off to blind people who I know get to all sorts of places around the country and totally understand those who just don’t go out without a guide. I mean, if you couldn’t see, would you ever leave your house alone?


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