East is east and west is… wet?

For my first twenty-six years I lived near the East Coast: first in New York City for eighteen years, and then in Pittsburgh for eight.

After that I moved to California and encountered a strange phenomenon: my sense of direction kept getting confounded by having the ocean on the wrong side!

Though I almost never saw the ocean in New York other than when I went to the beach, and of course never ever saw the ocean in Pittsburgh, I still unconsciously navigated by the knowledge that where the ocean was, was east. After getting to California, though again I seldom actually saw the ocean, I had a lot of trouble adjusting to the knowledge that where the ocean was, was now west. In fact, for a while I made a conscious effort to think not of the nearby Pacific Ocean but of the distant Atlantic for purposes of orienting myself around the Bay Area. (And, that worked.)

What makes this interesting is that, years later, I discovered that other East-Coast transplantees had encountered the same strange phenomenon.

I wonder what the larger significance of this phenomenon could be, if there is one. Does it belie some innate primal connection we all have to the sea? Is it related somehow to the way migrating birds navigate by the shapes of shorelines? If there were no ocean nearby but there was a major mountain peak, would I unconsciously relate my position to that instead?

One thought on “East is east and west is… wet?”

  1. Curiously, I had a similar problem when I moved here from Michigan and that was without having the ocean as a point of reference. My problem was with the hills. Michigan has virtually no topography until you get further north, so when I moved here it took me years to get over thinking that the Berkeley Hills were to the north of me. By eventually moving my point of reference from hills to water I was able to reorient. West is now wet for me.


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