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Open Diff – On deliberately getting lost

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Photo by Kurt Ernst.

Editor’s note: This Open Diff piece comes to us from Carrie Houlihan, a graphic artist here at Hemmings Motor News world headquarters in Bennington, Vermont. Carrie, a Bennington native, studied art at Alfred University and has worked in graphic design ever since, occasionally exhibiting her drawings in art shows and galleries. She is the president of her local Lions Club, and she can make the drive from Bennington to Lexington, Kentucky in one day.

That in-between stage, when we were moving away from maps and adjusting to GPS technology as the norm, was some of the best driving time of my life. Maps are great to look at and collect, and they can be useful to have with you, but if you’re anything like me, sometimes it’s more about the drive and less about where you are, exactly. That feeling of, “Oh, I know where I am now,” has a nice sense of accomplishment after you’ve bounced around on back county roads for a while, having no idea at all where you were. I always figured that if I looked at the map ahead of time, knew what towns were near what, and could distinguish between north, south, east and west, that I was good to go.

I live in a rural state where people love to tell you, “You can’t get there from here,” or “You can’t get there in that car,” depending upon its ground clearance. SUVs and crossovers are a pretty common sight, and some roads are closed from November to May because of snow – or worse yet, mud season. Occasionally, good Samaritans have signs posted to alert you that your GPS has led you astray, and that you really can’t connect to the highway from here. Some roads are so overgrown you can’t tell if it’s a thoroughfare or someone’s driveway. Even today, GPS signals are obscured in certain areas, and it isn’t uncommon for lost tourists to find themselves in the next state over. Knowing where you are at all times can be very trying.

In high school Drivers’ Ed, we had to plan out a theoretical road trip across the state using maps in the classroom. I remember feeling elated about planning that road trip; I wasn’t going to stick to the main roads, but instead I’d focus on byways and remote towns, just to see them. As soon as I got my license, joyriding was my favorite hobby.

In the early days of the internet, directions – often printed from a mapping website – were hit or miss, and while this prompted many adventures, it was occasionally the bane of my existence. Sometimes I wouldn’t even print the sheets, but instead scribbled down key points – or a heavily abridged version – before packing up and heading out. These directions, it seemed, were never accurate, and the wild goose chase they sent me on forced me to really explore the area of my chosen destination.

I used to drive back and forth across the state of New York every weekend. State Route 17 and I were best friends, but I always started the one-way, six-hour trek after dinner. On that flat stretch of road, rest stops are few and far between.

I could opt for a route consisting of county roads, but doing so always seemed like a gamble. Perhaps if I were lucky, I’d stumble across an open diner to get a cup of coffee, but those odds weren’t always in my favor. Route 90, which runs across the state north of Route 17, was my safety net. If I got off course, I’d just drive north until I’d run into 90 – somewhere, because it was bound to happen. Let’s see, I’m in Genesseo? I’ll go north, take 90 to Rochester and then go south.

Part of the fun of joyriding was seeing if you could get back on course after going somewhere unfamiliar. Do I have a GPS now? Yes. Do I always use it? No, because sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

How about you? Do you still take to the roads with an explorer’s sense of adventure, determined to find something new instead of just the quickest way between two points? Do you favor maps, a GPS, or none of the above? What are your secrets for finding your way?