Modern Day Static Compasses

While traipsing around Vermont and New York for the past couple of weeks (and I was “traipsing,” not “wandering,” “meandering,” “sashaying,” “ambling,” “strolling,” “strutting,” “prancing,” or “galavanting”) I was often getting all turned about and uncertain exactly which way I was headed. That part of the world has lots of twisty, turny roads.

If the sun is setting or rising it’s pretty easy to find east or west and go from there, but if it was cloudy (as it often was) or mid-day with the sun overhead, it could be more difficult to figure out directions from first principles.

As a Boy Scout in these very mountains, I was taught things like looking for moss growing on the north side of trees and other subtle tricks of nature to help in staying oriented. Not always that useful when driving, but hey, if I absolutely run out of other options, there are plenty of trees and plenty of moss – we’ll take a vote over a few hundred trees and see if we can come to a consensus on which way North lies.

However, there’s a much easier and more reliable piece of today’s landscape that will always tell you which way you’re facing.

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This is in Los Angeles and not Vermont (obviously) but the principle is the same. See those satellite dishes on top of the building? If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, those dishes are always pointed south. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, they’re always pointed north.

That’s because they’re all pointed at geosynchronous satellites which are out in space directly above the Equator. Since the Equator is to the south of you if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, the dishes point south. Once you know where south is, everything else falls into place.

In this picture I was obviously facing north. (The antennas are facing toward me.) In the fourth picture here (looking between the apartment buildings), I was obviously facing east. (The antennas are facing from right to left.)

In that second picture, the shadows from the sun setting behind me would confirm that I was facing east. But on the picture above where it’s cloudy and there are no shadows, the antennas will still give your orientation away.

There you go! If you’re out in the boonies in the woods, look for mossy trees. If you’re anywhere civilization, and that means just about anywhere you can find even a single building, look for the satellite dish.

With one caveat – if you’re at the Equator and all of the dishes are pointed straight up, you’re screwed.

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