When what looks to be up is really down

If you ever need a reminder of the power of perspective, make a journey to Magnetic Hill in New Brunswick.

In case you’ve never heard of it, Magnetic Hill is a naturally occurring, outdoor optical illusion. The hill makes you believe you are going up when you are in fact going down.

I had visited the place decades ago on my family’s annual trek “down home” to Nova Scotia. My engineer father was so intrigued that he poured water on the ground to see how it flowed. It looked like it was running uphill. He rented a tandem bicycle for my brother and me. We had to pedal down hill, but when we were heading back up the hill — or what looked like uphill — we flew without pedaling.

I had forgotten about that childhood visit until last month, when Bob and I took my father on a road trip to Nova Scotia. When we got to Moncton, New Brunswick, Dad wanted to stop at Magnetic Hill.

I was unenthusiastic, thinking the place was nothing but a gimmick. All the businesses that had cropped up around the hill — including a vineyard, zoo and water park — spelled tourist trap to me. But Dad insisted. He paid the $6 entrance fee and I guided the car to what looked like the top of a fairly steep hill on a road edged by woods. I was instructed to drive the car about 75 yards to the bottom of the hill, put the car in neutral and not touch the breaks.

I did as I was told and soon found myself navigating backwards at about 15 miles an hour — uphill without touching the gas. It was so disconcerting that I pressed on the breaks to slow us down and get my bearings. Even that didn’t stop the car from rolling to the top of the hill.

My husband was driving a separate car behind us and he was as astounded as I was when he “ascended” the hill.

I did some research on so-called magnetic hills and found that there are hundreds around the world. Also known as gravity hills or anti-gravity hills, they are always on stretches of road with a partially or fully obstructed view to the horizon. The human brain apparently needs that view in order to discern the real slope of a hill. Otherwise, what looks up is really down.

Nothing on that hill in Moncton that made its true direction visible to me. I drove away humbled, wondering about all the other realities I fail to see because my perception is off.

It has been an enduring lesson. Now, when I wonder why people think so differently than me — hard to avoid in this political climate — I think about Magnetic Hill.

Maybe it’s all about context.

— Barbara LeBlanc

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Bob Unger  508-542-1252
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Barbara LeBlanc  603-486-8760
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