Lost and found

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Today’s rain never materialized so I got to ride in the hills again without the misery of treacherously wet descents and a spinning back wheel on the steeps. The always-wrong weather app says it’s 100% going to rain tomorrow so maybe I can count on a dry ride then, too.

There are a lot of great reasons to ride in a foreign country but one of the best is so that you can find your new best friend. If you ride a lot you have best friend routes, ones that feel more comfortable to you than others. Usually, one route is your favorite. Riding in Vienna I think I’ve discovered my favorite route out of town, up the wall called Johann-Staud Strasse and then through the woods to the tower and then down Ulmenstrasse with its crazy twisting endless hairpins through a fricking neighborhood.

Today everything was going great until I turned onto an arterial that was going to take me to the turnoff to the Exelberg, which is the highest peak near Vienna at about 530m. The arterial was choked with commuter traffic into the city and it was uphill and fairly steep so I had all kinds of vehicles passing me within inches and I was crowded onto a little strip about six inches wide.

However, the cars didn’t pass that fast and there was a good foot or eighteen inches between me and them so it was mostly mutual annoyance rather than chamois-browning fear. The low 40s turned into high 30s up in the hills and it was a damp cold, one that cut right through to your fingertips, but as soon as I turned off towards the Exelberg the traffic vanished and it was steady, heat-generating climbing.

Since getting to Austria I’ve refused to use GPS navigation and have instead bought maps, studied them, and then gone out and gotten lost AF. The most exciting thing about riding without GPS is getting lost and found. Remember when you were a kid and you used to get lost? Or when you started riding and you would get lost AF and you’d be out of food and water and nowhere near a store?

Turns out that was good for you, and reliance on GPS is brain-eating poison. Studies show that if you use GPS you automatically shut off a crucial part of your brain, the hippocampus, and if you continually use GPS your hippocampus will shrivel up into a wizened little nub, useless for anything more complex than finding your way to the fridge. Before GPS the brain had a pretty good system for getting around, but now that everyone uses a dumbphone it’s totally common to run into people who have no sense of direction at all. The more wayfinding technology they have, the more lost they become.

I, on the other hand, have been getting lost AF but then hitting the dopamine high of getting found. Getting found is the best feeling a person can feel. Okay, the second. And you can’t ever get found with GPS because GPS connects a bunch of dots and when you get to the final dot, your destination, you just eat the cheeseburger, but when you get found in cognitive brain mapping, a picture clicks into place.

Paper maps are far superior to GPS mapping as far as the human brain goes because they accelerate the development of your actual cognitive map. You know what I’m talking about; it’s when a particular location becomes part of an existing mental picture, like when a missing puzzle piece clicks perfectly into place. Like I said, second best feeling ever.

In a sense, I’ve been getting lost every few minutes here in Vienna, especially in the beginning, because the existing cognitive map was so tiny and it took so much work to plug in the pieces. The exhaustion behind getting lost occurs when your brain is overwhelmed by the landscape such that it recognizes nothing and you don’t see any part of the picture.

But the beauty of the brain is that it spins overtime even when you’re lost to create coherence, and after each ride I’ve returned to the hotel, studied the map, retraced my route, and locked huge chunks of the puzzle into my mental map. After a few days I have a very perfectly rough picture of the city, and granular maps of the area I’ve now ridden in three separate times. That would never have happened with GPS or by simply following along on a group ride. The anxiety of staying found, getting lost, getting found, and getting lost again keeps me on my toes in a way that GPS never could have.

In fact, I got found two days ago when, at the end of my rope, utterly turned around, frustrated and legs wrecked, I recognized a bank of trash cans that I’d tried to throw a banana peel into on my first ride. The can lids had been locked and I cussed pretty good. The second I saw those garbage receptacles, the whole surrounding area clicked into place including the buildings, the road, the crosswalk, and most importantly, the route back to the hotel. With GPS I might have gotten back more quickly, but no cognitive anything would have remained. Instead I’ve cemented a large section of the city into my head.

This cycle of lost-found-lost-found breeds “found-ness,” but also confidence. How many tourists spend a few days in this city and never remember anything at all about its layout or the location of its important streets, monuments, buildings, and natural features? Most, I’d guess.

Today’s getting-lost event happened between Tulln and the village of Muckendorf in the micro-village of Wipfing as I tried to find the Donau bike path. I interrupted two gabbing housewives to ask directions and they happily obliged, but the local dialect overpowered me and all I could do was nod as if I understood and soldier on. Austria has so many local dialects and they are crazy-hard to understand.

I found another woman and asked her the same thing. “I don’t know, sorry,” she said, which was kind of incredible since as it turned out we were only about 200 yards from the giant Donau River. Finally I asked some dude walking his dog on a berm and he answered in glass clear German that I understood perfectly, and then he translated it into even more perfect English. That feeling of mild panic I’d been having, the feeling of lost, was hitting a crescendo.

I followed his directions and magically reached the base of the levee, exactly where he said it would be. My brain stepped out and took a quick dopamine bath; this was the trail I’d been on a couple of days earlier. However, the bike path was on top, about 30 feet above where I was standing. Luckily there were stairs, and even more luckily they were covered in thick, slick mud. When I got to the top it was worth it, though, because I had a slight tailwind, a deserted bike path, a gentle downhill slope all the way to Vienna, and a massive piece of cognitive mapping had materialized like sculpture from a lump of clay.

With GPS I would have been back on the bike path, but with brain mapping I was both building out the chart and filling it in with crucial details made up of landmarks, distances, the curvature of the river, and all the other things that our brains have used for thousands of years to place us within our environment so that we can get home again.

Back in town I cleaned up and headed off to the bookstore. Vienna is busting out with them, real bookstores filled with actual books, not the Barnes & Ignoble-type places that carry fifty bestsellers, a rack of kids’ books, and a wall of schlock on travel. The bookstore I’ve been hanging out most at is Thalia, at the Wien-Mitte subway stop. It is filled with people browsing and the shop has lots of chairs for you to sit down in and read. Plus, it’s warm, which suits my t-shirt attire perfectly.

I curled up in one of the chairs with a stack of maps and other items. You can’t have too many maps. Really, you can’t.

END

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