When I was nine the teacher said, “Draw a map from your house to the school.” I held paper in my lap and drew the way while I sat on Bus 63 on the way to school that Tuesday. I added and took away from my map on Wednesday and Thursday, sensing the detours to the Kaufmann’s house, the Eick’s, the Perry’s and the Beach’s, didn’t count as on the way, but not sure how to get back my bearings once we made the left uphill or the right and around a block. I wasn’t sure what counted as the path to get there. I turned something in, but I was embarrassed at my effort and knew it was wrong. (It was.)
I seemed to be working from the conclusion that north was the direction I gazed at, unless I was at my house, in which case “north” was the direction of Lake Erie; when I knew where the lake was, my North became less me-centric.
I still get lost when I don’t take the familiar roads. I have come to enjoy the not-seeing very well, which comes with the adrenaline’d response to being lost: I see less of my surroundings, and because my fear has whittled down the scenery to a few bright things, they are brighter than usual. The gas station perched in the unknown hamlet near a hill looks like a banner announcing welcome help. The landscape, turning dimly green in April, and stretched out on both sides of the car, is like saline on parched eyes. The world is slightly mystical, both inviting and a threat at once.
I have also taken to heart the musician’s idea that if you must play a wrong note, change it quickly to the one in the proper key. I back up the car, murmuring to myself, “turn around turn around turn around” when I know it’s the wrong way and going further will make it worse. I am now better at the correction intuition than the go-the-proper-way intuition, which is hampered by my unreasonable flights of fantasy: “the directions say go 441, but this feels fucked up, I haven’t seen a soul in a while, fuck it, I’m turning here.”
Often I just take familiar roads. Somewhat recently, I discovered that a road I’ve been taking for as long as I can remember has, through municipal error, become something of a quagmire of construction. It will never not-be a pain to use this road. The tax collection procedure for the betterment of this road has been perfected by the state and the unions have ensured that the work on it will continue indefinitely. Why not? The Thruway has got something for everyone: the workers, the city, the fleecers at the tax department, the transportation department, and the dull fast food joints lined up all along it. The drivers seem not to complain that it is always a 45 zone somewhere along it, and that the tickets are doubled for speeding in these areas. I too was pretty fucking used to it.
In the Fall of 2011, the Thruway became heavily flooded. I was driving from Albany to Rochester on it, and the flood detours, mostly near bridges which were sodden with water near their supports, were everywhere. I was driving with a friend, and the trip took eleven slowly crawling hours. We drove at less than 30 miles an hour the entire, car-packed way. It was an endurance convention. We never stopped talking, which helped, but I resented the road and the hot sun baking the car and felt I wanted to escape, to cool off, to get away. I wanted to strand the car and walk.
On the way back in, two days later, I was frantic to avoid the Thruway. I could take that ponderous path with someone else in the car, but I’d dropped off the friend and now was driving alone.
Finally, out of a clawed-out-of-ignorance desperation, I bought, at the second gas station I inquired at, a map. I took the southern meandering beeline across New York State using the map, especially near Triangle, New York, when I started to get afraid the road had become a different road, that I wasn’t on the right one anymore, that I was truly and irretrievably lost and would have to go back to that old route, which had, via a flood, traumatized my patient endurance and showed me how long I’d hated it’s flat sameness for so many miles across the years.
The map was readable, at least once I turned it in the direction I was gazing and read from there (in this case turning it to rest on its east side). I made it back to Albany, only returning to my familiar feelers-approach once I got to the outskirts of the city: now hospital signs, now left, now right, coast past park and onto Morris….
I was dizzy, by the time I got to my hood, with the impact of taking a new way. I can’t explain if you haven’t taken the Thruway, and forgot to hate it for so long. I can’t explain if you aren’t reliant— not on a sense of the sun’s hint at East and West, nor aware of the idea that the Earth is distinct from the eyes that see it but instead—- on a gutsy intuition and a right to be wrong, often, and a willingness to adjust endlessly. If you get that, I tell you—take the new roads. Take a map with you, and practice trailing your hand across it, as often as you need to.