Khun Yuam, Thailand 1 Dec 11
Odometer 72,501 m 116,680 km

Love 'em or hate 'em, signs surround us. They identify, advertise, inform and warn, just as they clutter and confuse. We can't board an airplane, read the newspaper, pump our gas, watch a movie, pop a pill, take a drink, wander the streets, click a link or use the toilet and escape their omnipresence. They're on walls, billboards and shopping bags, in and outside our clothing, on TV, tailgates, tents and computers. But in spite of their apparent ubiquity, it's right when you need 'em you lose 'em.

For eons, humans have occupied a small world immediately surrounding their homes and migratory routes--hunting, gathering and eventually farming to survive. Sophisticated methods for exploring new terrain beyond a limited sphere of activity were unnecessary, as local knowledge sufficed. Even today, most people stick close to home where they've grown to know their way around with little assistance.

But the availability of fossil fuels opened up a much larger world. Almost overnight, mobility became easy and cheap. And that meant new skills were required to find your way from a known Point A to an unknown Point B, without
getting lost in between.

Four, key advances would allow someone with no prior knowledge of place or route to confidently travel where they'd never gone before. First, we all agreed on which way was "up," forever orienting us to the earth's poles. Next, cartographers created maps; engineers invented the sextant, compass and GPS; and everybody else posted signs.
read sign
At last, Jeremiah encounters a solitary, hand-painted sign--he cannot read.
My Journey has made me increasingly aware of the disparity between those who can find their way around and those who cannot. Homebodies, by and large, never acquire a sense of cardinal direction. The whole north-south-east-west thing is an abstraction they're simply unable to wrap their heads around. Maps, often unavailable or of poor quality, are only understood by those schooled in map reading, a skill rarely taught and infrequently practiced. And while GPS receivers are slowly becoming more accurate, they're unaffordable for most and only as good as their data sets and batteries.

Riding off-road brings with it the added challenge of navigating in a near signless environment. Here, you cannot rely on the locals for
good directions; they've likely never been where you're going and are unable to read your map (see above). Add to that a GPS with insufficient data, and you're left with the sun and an occasional sign as your only workable guides.

The sun is pretty reliable, provided you're adept at tracking its ever-changing position throughout the day. Signs are anything but.
Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?
--Five Man Electrical Band
Plying the infrequently traveled byways of any continent is tough, but even more so in the developing world. Here, funds are scarce; infrastructure is lacking; master planning is unheard of.

Locals often take it upon themselves to post what signs do exist. And this is where it gets tricky. One man’s left is another man’s right, depending on his perspective. Each sign-maker has a personal agenda that rarely coincides with the greater good. This limits their signs' reliability and calls into question what distinguishes good signs from bad.

Part science/part art, good signs impart important information at just the right moment. They don’t tease you with vague hints; they emphatically state
what you need to know, when you need to know it.

Bad signs, on the other hand, obfuscate rather than clarify. They incite more doubt than confidence. They’re
worse than no sign at all.
As I painstakingly picked my way through the forested mountains of northwest Thailand, I was repeatedly reminded of how often I had cursed the very eyesores I now prayed for.

“Show me a sign,” I cried out in vain, as kilometer after kilometer clicked by with no sign of life, let alone a simple arrow pointing me in the right direction.



My Image
Avoiding trouble with a mid-day power-nap, in a borrowed farmer's shade-house.
And then, as if my request was heard and granted--a diminutive sign appeared. It was made of wood, affixed to a simple post and hand painted in neat, white lettering. It stood at the intersection of a fork in the road, a beacon of hope in an otherwise illiterate landscape.
When you get to a fork in the road, take it. --Yogi Berra
Maybe it would offer a clue as to my whereabouts. Maybe it would at least lead me to a known point from which I could then climb back on route. Maybe it would save me from another damp and chilly night in the tent. Maybe it would even lead me to a hot shower, a cold beer and a plate of steaming rice topped off with stir-fried veggies and a big Brahma steak!

It did not.

Written in Thai, an arcane language I cannot hope to decipher, it only added to my doubt and confusion. I chose the right fork anyway, as the sign suggested, only after ritually conferring with eenie, meenie, miney and moe.

There were more signs.

Some were written in Thai, but offered helpful illustrations. I have no idea what
this sign says, but at least I know it has something to do with cows. Does it say Beef, It's What's For Dinner or Beware, Mad Cow Disease? It's important not to infer too much from the picture, alone, as the fine print might spell out the difference between a good meal and your last meal.

Some, like
this one, were only illustrated. I guess free-range elephants need no introduction. Which begs the question, why do elephants even need a sign when so many other things, like which way to the next village, go unsigned?

Then there are the signs that attempt to be
bilingual, like this one. Proof that stringing letters together, even when they're in your own language, doesn't automatically make them sensible. Anyone who's ever tried to understand an owner's manual originally written in Chinese, then loosely translated into English, understands my dilemma.

None of this was helping.

So, I stared at my map and blithely did what most of us do in one manner or another, everyday. I drew broad conclusions based on insufficient tidbits of information to create my own
alternate reality. I made the map fit my evidence, instead of seeing if the evidence fit my map. I convinced myself that I knew exactly where I was, even circling the spot for emphasis! Had I companions, I could have launched into a persuasive argument to convince them that I was right, in spite of being dead wrong.
click to zoom
From a lifetime of travel experience and years spent working in search and rescue, I know that people rarely get lost making one, simple mistake. It's the compounding of that initial misstep that instigates real trouble.

Instead of pausing long enough to coolly evaluate their situation, they plod ahead and make a second mistake, then a third, a fourth and so on. They, in effect, fail to see the writing on the wall, or a lamppost, or a tree, or anywhere else.

Personally, I know better. When I start to feel unsure of my whereabouts I stop, relax, even lie down and take a nap. When I wake up, I'll still be lost, but instead of riding deeper into trouble--I dream of signs to come.

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