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UnCommonwealth: This Shell cashier can tell you how to get almost anywhere from here

Ken Brookins, who works at the Shell gas station off Winchester Road near Interstate 75, has a gift: an extraordinary sense of direction and a strong memory.
Ken Brookins, who works at the Shell gas station off Winchester Road near Interstate 75, has a gift: an extraordinary sense of direction and a strong memory. Herald-Leader

Some people can name that tune. Some can remember a bit of trivia as if it is glued to a sticky note somewhere in their noggins — that My Fair Lady won the 1964 Oscar for best picture, for example.

Ken Brookins knows directions.

In a world where GPS can sometimes land you on the middle of railroad tracks when you had been seeking a nearby farm, Brookins has the gift of knowing exactly where he is and where he has been, and of being able to tell you how to get where you want to go.

He considers his directional sense not a gift, but a skill honed by years of repetition. It is fortunate for the direction-dyslexic — those who cannot remember how they got where they are and certainly have no idea how to get back — to wander in to where Brookins works and get his help.

Can he get just about anyone to their destination from the Shell station on Thunderstick Drive, just off Winchester Road at the interstate interchange?

Usually. In fact, Brookins, a cashier at the station, can show them the way, all while peppering his directions with stories of his travels to Israel and Australia.

Theories abound on how people remember things. Memory competitors enroll themselves in national and international tournaments and develop techniques such as "memory palaces," in which items to be remembered are associated with objects in the "palace." A palace can be anywhere, even the house in which you grew up, when you "build" the palace in your mind: The front walk can be your bank password, the mailbox your mom's birthday.

Joshua Foer wrote about the phenomenon in his book Moonwalking With Einstein.

Ask Brookins how to get to Seattle and be prepared to take notes really fast. While you're considering how to spell Coeur d'Alene in Idaho — where Brookins has you arriving after Indian apolis and North Dakota — Brookins is already approaching the Space Needle in his mind.

Also, he often can tell you the exact mileage of various journeys From Huntington, W.Va., to Lexington, it's 122 miles. (Google claims 126, but it probably doesn't use the same exit Brookins does.)

Brookins, 52, a Maysville native and a devoted fan of the band Kiss, is a world traveler. His most recent trip was to Australia in 2010. Travel, he explained as customers bought jerky, energy drinks and car phone chargers, is his passion.

He has been to 49 of the 50 states. Brookins hasn't visited Florida, which is odd because his son lives there. He plans to visit.

He also has a fail-safe memory for the places he has stayed: He can pinpoint the location of the hotel where he stayed in Sydney.

"It was on Warwick Avenue," he says, and then pauses. "No, that's wrong. It was Wentworth Avenue"

A later Google search proved him right: a Travelodge at 27 Wentworth Avenue in Sydney.

Bev Thompson, a cashier at Traxx on Newtown Pike who worked with Brookins in 2012, said Brookins was sought out for his skill with directions.

"We had a lot of people wanting to know directions," she said. "If they needed something, they would look for Ken. He could get you anywhere you needed to go."

Brookins' favorite route is the one that leads 2,400 miles northwest to Seattle, his favorite city. Already, Brookins' white Cadillac is pasted with decals of his favorite team: the Seattle Seahawks.

He hopes to go back there next year to live. Plus, he already knows the way.

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