Of all the things that technology has all but removed from our lives, the giving and receiving of directions is the one I have the most trouble getting used to. I’m good with not needing to write letters, look numbers up in a phone book, or lug a bunch of 8-tracks, cassettes or CD’s around in my car. I love my GPS (her name is Greta), but I miss the distinctly human practice of giving directions. I knew that at some point, I would be writing a “back in my day” post, and I guess that point is now.
I am like my father, who would always give you directions by landmark instead of highway exits and route numbers. Instead of “take I-79 to Rt-50,” he would say “go down (Interstate) 79 and get off like you’re going to Bobby’s gas station.” Making matters worse, he didn’t limit himself to existing landmarks; he once gave me directions that included the phrase “…and keep going until you get to where old-man Bedner’s barn used to be, then turn left” (the barn had burned down years before).
If you have ever looked at the ‘About’ page, you know that this blog gets its name from a stretch of the as yet unimproved I-79 near Morgantown, West Virginia where I went to college. Of course, “unimproved” is relative; in 1973, the West Virginia Turnpike was a two-lane undivided highway separated by a common passing lane in some sections. It wasn’t necessary to get on I-79 to get to my apartment; but on the day that I was moving in, the directions the landlord had given me began with “you’ll come into town on 19, then get on the new highway” and proceeded from there. “19” referred to US-19, a piece of torturous highway that wound its way through the Allegheny Mountains and remained the road of choice for my father long after I-79 made it unnecessary. My trip began without a map; stay on Rt-19 until you cross into WV, get on I-79 and then follow the directions.
I probably wouldn’t have been able to find a map in Pittsburgh that included street level detail of Morgantown, WV even if I had tried. Maps were generally available (for free with a few gallons of gas) for the area you were in, and the highways in between you and your next likely destination; once you got there, you would get another map. I drove across the US and back across Canada using that system, and it worked pretty well. One of my favorite “map moments” occurred when my wife and I were still dating. We had gotten lost and as we thought about heading home, she somewhat sarcastically said “I don’t suppose you even have a map in this car.” I seized the moment to surprise her with my Exxon Map of the Eastern United States. Of course, that map, showing the US from the Mississippi River east, included the dozen or so major highways in CT, none of which we knew how to get to.
Getting lost has never been panic inducing event for me, partly because I get lost a lot, and partly because the act of getting lost has so often resulted in a surprising new find. After my wife and I drove around a while, we followed a stream of traffic and ended up at the Haddam Neck Fair. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we have returned to that fair many times on Labor Day weekends. On another occasion, when returning to our house from a friend’s in central CT, we took the wrong turn near Riverton, CT and ended up circumnavigating the Barkhamsted reservoir. We were lost for sure, but we enjoyed the ride. With the advent of GPS, driving has become a transaction, not an adventure – although I am still capable of making it an adventure as my family and friends will attest to. I have the ability to misunderstand the GPS directions, especially on Rt-128 near Waltham, MA.
…continue ¾ of a mile, then turn left where the barn used to be
My wife still prefers paper maps, and she has a small collection of detailed books of street maps. She is a route-number traveler, something I will never understand. She prefers having a sense of the entire journey before we start driving. She’s not fond of my GPS, and less fond of the fact that I listen to Greta but I don’t always listen to her. The fact that I manage to get lost while using the GPS isn’t helping the adoption process. I look forward to the day when my GPS will be so sophisticated and have so much memory that I will be able to choose Landmark Style instructions and hear the female British voice say: “continue ¾ of a mile, then turn left where the barn used to be.”