Rediscovering the lost art of asking for directions

Modern GPS may be handy, but it can’t match the experience of meeting the locals

Originally published June 26, 2017

It was once just the stereotypical domain of men to never, ever ask for directions. I know this is at least anecdotally true because I had a stubborn father; I know there might be some kind of gender thing at its root because I have a son who can figure out where he is in the middle of a jungle or a desert without a map. I get hopelessly lost in malls.

Google Maps and navigation systems have solved many, many problems. They’ve become incredibly good at saving lost travellers and helping us weave around obstructions and chaos in unfamiliar places. But I was recently reminded of the very real limitations of technology by experiencing the pricelessness of human connection.

I was in a strange place en route to an even stranger concert when I found myself parked in a bar with an hour to kill. Small towns offer up amiable places, where even if you’re new there are always people around who like to bring you up to speed on the locals as you sit in their local. As we sat at the bar pondering the specials, we mentioned we weren’t far away from our final destination. The bartender raised an eyebrow.

“Maybe not in miles, but it’s gonna be crazy trying to get there,” he said. He paused, and I watched him do a calculation in his head. “Okay, when you leave here, head to Erie Street,” he began. By the time he’d reached the third turn and the second traffic circle, he’d lost me. I smiled and asked him to start again. I also realized that Steve, the bartender, was doing what I do at home: telling people to follow the river or look for a famous local marker – in this case, a blue barn – makes perfect sense. If you’re a local. His earnestness at the traffic we would be heading into made me stick with him, though.

The navigation system in the Nissan I was driving had been perfect, I told him, even snaking us precisely down myriad old streets in a town established in the 1600s, when navigation meant looking up at the sky instead of poking buttons on the dashboard. Alternate systems could be consulted should I need to do my usual rock, paper, scissors when faced with competing instructions. We’ve gone from not enough information to way too much. A paper foldout map was tucked somewhere in my bag, though it’s occurred to me the only people likely to still consult them are the ones whose eyesight is too terrible to read them. Like me.

Conversation turned to the locally made beers as the bartender headed to his side of the bench, and I fiddled with my phone contemplating the next best moves. I hoped we’d at least stumble on the blue barn.

Ten minutes later, Steve was back.

“Here,” he said. He handed me two slips of paper, old school bar tabs. On them, he’d written explicit directions to get us out of town and to our destination. Placing them on the bar, he proceeded to run down each line, noting where there was construction.

I don’t need much of a reason to take a road trip to anywhere, at any time. I like to ramble and poke about, and discover instead of fly past. The reason we’d even landed at this bar was because we’d asked the owner of the funky little hotel we’d stayed at where we could grab an early dinner. I looked at the instructions before me, and smiled to myself. This is where the road should lead, I thought. Those cars that make these road trips so easy are simultaneously taking away the very essence of what those trips used to be, and still should be. If I never have to leave my car, if I can order food by shouting into a speaker, dial up directions by scrolling through screens and rarely have to stop for fuel, I am driving a technological marvel but losing out on the human experience.

I’m the first one to tout the significance of how safe I now feel when I travel, especial when I’m alone. But if my parents lamented a generation lost to knowing how to read a paper map, I’m wondering if mine will note the loss of one who doesn’t need the people of the places it passes through.

The scribbled directions spit us out near the entrance to the venue, saving us a lot of time, as promised. Returning that night was a straight shot back, the one all our systems had proposed earlier.

And the blue barn was right where Steve said it would be.

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