LIKE tourists just off the bus, we stare intently at our maps, hunting for a direction. We're not the only ones. Around us, in a brushy meadow in Topanga State Park lit golden by the early morning sun, assorted map readers are fanning out across the field, scrutinizing cartographic details as if the markings held a route to buried doubloons. Everyone's doing their coordinate-checking on the move, some running, some fast-hiking, since this isn't a Gray Line Tour. It's a race.

Unlike most racecourses, no one knows where they're going on this one unless they check a map about every three seconds. And that doesn't always help, I'm finding, on my first bout of orienteering, an obscure sport that started in Scandinavia about a century ago. It combines hiking, trail running, Easter egg hunting and the ability to decode squiggly lines on a topo map while dodging branches and potholes.

"I think it's going to be over here," I tell Clare Durand, a high-energy Valley Village orienteer who's a leader of the Los Angeles Orienteering Club and vice president of competition for the U.S. Orienteering Federation.

She's agreed to assist my bumbling today at a race that's brought out a mix of athletes, wilderness aficionados, families, soldiers on training runs, and Girl and Boy Scouts who have no qualms about leaving me in the dust.

We're in search of a white and orange nylon bag, called a control marker, one of nine control stations along the route, planted by race organizers the day before. When we find it, we'll each stick a plastic tab attached to an index finger into a contraption that will digitally record our arrival time.

The objective: to navigate by map, compass and your wits to all the controls on the course and make it back to the starting line ASAP — or at least without the services of a search party.

"Where'd the trail go?" I ask. "Through those trees?"

"It doesn't tell you whether it's inside the trees or on the edge," says Durand, looking up from her map. She's going to let me figure it out.

I head for a clump of oak trees, the light-green area on the map — denoting "forest, slow, difficult" — and we're suddenly plunging into a gully and back up the other side. There's no control bag in here, but there is something else. "This stuff is poison oak," notes Durand matter-of-factly. "Depending on how allergic you are, that may or may not be a problem." I never knew there was an option.

Orienteers know their poison oak, not to mention earth banks, knolls and boulder groups, features that are meticulously marked on race maps by master cartographers that can cost as much as $6,000. It's a familiarity with topography and place all but vanished from most urban faculties these days.

From GPS to MapQuest and the most common way-finding device today, the cellphone, technology has made the world safe for the directionally challenged but at the cost of dwindling geographical awareness.

"I think it's troublesome that people don't pull out maps as much anymore," says Stephen C. Hirtle, a professor of information sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. "They're losing two senses. One, they're losing a sense of what's around them and the notion of connectedness. And they're also losing some problem-solving skills they used in trying to plan routes."

And don't forget losing that car in the mall parking structure. The good news is that observational tools can be resuscitated with practice, something orienteering addresses with the old-school technology inside your skull.

As Gary Dolgin, race director of the Topanga meet, put it before the start, "If you run like a gazelle but think like a cinder block, you are doomed. It is a thinking sport."

There are signs that some Americans are hankering for more directions in life. "The Great Race" is drawing big TV audiences; adventure racing is booming; and orienteering, a backwater event since meets began in the U.S. in the '60s, is beginning to attract some new participants. There are enough adventure racers entering orienteering meets that special courses are now offered for them.

Still, the sport is tiny in the U.S., compared with Europe. One orienteering meet in Sweden attracts 5,000 people; the average participation at Southern California races is 60 to 110. There are about a million orienteers in the U.S.

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Fast tips, then go

TO boost the ranks, orienteering experts give novices a quick tutorial on the sport before each of the races, sponsored locally by the Los Angeles and San Diego orienteering clubs.