This may sound like bragging, but I’m pretty sure that I do not have the worst sense of direction in United States. I say this because I have a friend who was driving one day and missed Philadelphia. The city. I can’t say for sure that I would notice the fifth largest city in America when driving by, but I’m fairly confident I would, and so I would say that at-best, the very best, I have the second-worst sense of direction in the Untied States.*
*My wife, meanwhile, has a very good sense of direction, which you would think makes us the perfect geographical couple. Unfortunately, Margo has another title: She is the most descriptive direction giver in the entire world. A typical Margo set of directions might go like so: “You’ll want to stay straight on that road, and you’ll go by the Dairy Queen and gas station, I’m not sure which one it is, I’m thinking it’s like a Sunoco, maybe, or an Exxon, but whatever, just keep going by that, and you’ll go by where the Bob Evans used to be, they closed it like a year ago, I thought they had really slow service, but my husband liked their chicken salad plate, which I have to admit was pretty good, it had lots of fruit on it, but I couldn’t stand going there because of the service. You’ll keep going, you know, past the bank, which actually used to be our old bank, but then we saw that they were hitting us with these charges, you know, and I called them up to tell them about it, and they were kind of rude, you know, so that was it, I cannot believe they had that kind of customer service, and anyway it didn’t make any sense because once they closed the Bob Evans, there really wasn’t much reason to go into that shopping center, especially because that gas station, I think, always charges like seven cents more per gallon than that gas station near our house and …”
At this point the person is exactly two blocks away from where he or she started.
Having, potentially, the second-worst sense of direction in the United States, I have come to rely entirely on the GPS system in whatever car I happen to be driving. I do mean entirely. I’ve written before that if my GPS sent me to Dallas via Yakutsk, I would pack my winter coat.* If my GPS told me to stop the car, get out, and start singing songs from “Oklahoma,” you would hear “The corn was as high as an elephant’s eye!”
*This GPS Dependence drives my wife mad because she thinks that she knows better than the computer, and she’s probably right. Unfortunately for her, the computer says “Take next right,” while she says, “Go by the Lowe’s, you know, where we got that first grill, remember, the one that has the missing starter part, and you had to use that Q-Tip to try and clean it out and then we realized that they had sold us an empty gas canister and …”
One of the many side-effects of being that reliant on a GPS is that I’ve sort of become cocky about long trips. I don’t do research like I once did. Oh, sure, I used to pull out maps — as conflicting as it sounds, I’m actually pretty good at reading maps — and I would plot out routes and I would plan out stops and everything like that. I would STILL get lost, but it wasn’t for lack of preparation. But now, I just get in the car, punch in the destination, and robotically follow directions. This is exactly what I did on Monday, when I planned to drive from Kansas City to Lincoln, Nebraska.
* * *
I’ve made the Kansas City to Lincoln drive a few times before, and I always liked it. I like driving. I especially like mindless driving. The drive to Lincoln is generally a two-turn trip. You take I-29 North into Iowa. Then you go west on Nebraska Highway 2. And that’s just about it. Once you get closer to Lincoln there are a few more turns, but they’re well marked and, anyway, I had my GPS. I was going up to Lincoln to spend some time with Nebraska’s legendary coach Tom Osborne, we were going to talk about Joe Paterno, and I was excited about things. I left about two hours early in case of problems. I punched in the address of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln (600 Stadium Drive) and I was off.
Everything went smoothly. Traffic was light heading into Iowa, as you might expect, it being Iowa. There was some construction that sliced the four-lane highway into a two-lane road for a little while, but it wasn’t bad at all. I was making good time. I took the exit that would take me West on Hwy 2, and got to the bottom of the ramp, and the GPS told me to turn left, go under the bridge. I, of course, would have done just that except the road to the left under the bridge was gone. Completely gone. In its place was dirt and trucks and people wearing hard hats.
This was a bit disconcerting. My GPS was happily chirping away, “Turn left!” and offering comforting little bell sounds. But there was no left turn. At this point, I realized I was on my own. And being on my own, with my marvelous sense of direction, I noticed that on the other side of the trucks and dirt and hard hats, there were a couple of gas stations with cars in them and a Wendy’s that seemed to be buzzing, and I realized that all I had to do was go to the next exit, turn around, and take the I-29 South exit on the other side of the bridge. I felt quite sure that this is what Magellan would have done.
So I got back on the highway, and the GPS alerted me that the next exit was seven miles away. Ah well. A fifteen-minute detour. Not too bad. I went to the next exit, the Percival, Iowa exit, and I thought about Troy Percival, and I turned around and headed back South. I’m pretty sure it was right about this time that I noticed that my gas warning light had popped on.
* * *
If you have an innately good sense of direction — and I’m stunned by how many people do — you already know that the South Exit for Highway 2 was entirely closed. Well, of course it was. You couldn’t even get on the ramp. Now, I was irritated. I looked down at my GPS, which told me — still a bit too happily — that the next exit was 10 miles away. Ten stinking miles. So now you could add 20 more minutes to this trip, and that’s even assuming that I could figure out a way to get on to Highway 2.
I called the GPS people — this was in a rental car, and there is a number on the GPS to call when you are incompetent. I’m not sure if the number is ONLY for incompetent people, but I’d cleared that hurdle and so I called and explained my situation. The woman on the phone was very nice and very understanding and she looked for an alternate route. While she looked, I closed in on the next exit, the one that was 10 miles away, and, you bet, it was closed. Oh yeah. Completely closed.
When the gas light comes on in a car, I tend to think that in case of emergency I have 50 miles left. I don’t know where that number “50” came from, but that’s somehow burned in my brain. And so I was doing some quick math in my head while the GPS woman looked up a way to get me to Lincoln. I don’t think the light was on very long before I noticed it. I had driven about 10 miles on the light, and it looked like I had another nine miles to the NEXT exit. That was 19 miles. To get back up to the Percival Exit — which I figured would be would be my best best — was another 20 miles at least. That didn’t give me much wiggle room.
The woman found a solution. She said that if I went up to the exit after Percival, I could turn right and eventually get to Highway 2. It sounded as reasonable as anything else. I eventually was able to turn around, drive back up North, past to the Percival exit to the Thurman exit. I turned right. The GPS did not think this was a good move. I know because she told me, “When possible, make a legal U-Turn.”
And then she told again, “When possible, make a legal U-Turn.”
And then she said: “Hell, I don’t care if it’s legal or not, go the other way. Also, stop intentionally walking people in the early innings of postseason games. Sheesh.”
The GPS was right. The right turn led to what appeared to be somebody’s driveway. I was beginning to grow desperate. I asked the GPS to find me a route, and this time I said to “Use The Least Number of Freeways.” Sure enough, the GPS sent me past the interstate to what looked to me like a small but promising country road. I turned left.
I’d say it was a good 400 feet before it turned into a dirt road.
* * *
There is something liberating about driving on a dirt road. There is the sound of pebbles bashing against the underside of the car. There’s the dust trail you leave behind. Whenever I drive on a dirt road, I feel a little bit like Junior Johnson riding moonshine. OK, a very little bit, but it’s there.
The most liberating part of driving on a dirt road is that it’s loaded with possibility. You might just pop out EXACTLY where you wanted to be, just like they do in the movies when they go off-roading. The GPS told me I needed to be on this particularly bumpy and lonely dirt road for five miles, which I had to say seemed promising to me. Five miles is a pretty long distance. I imagined it taking me right to Highway 2, maybe even knocking a few minutes off my staggering trip. Hey I deserved a break. I was beginning to feel good about it, even though the car was taking a beating and the needle of my gas gauge was getting perilously close to the E line.
And then I looked to the left.
And I realized that this stupid dirt road was running EXACTLY PARALLEL with the Interstate.
I’d say this is about when the panic hit. I was in the middle of nowhere. I was getting no cell service. I was about to run out of gas. All I had at this moment was my GPS, and I had to admit she was firm in her conviction. She wanted me to get to the end of the dirt road, take a right on another country road (not a dirt road, this time), and this would take me to Highway 2. The GPS even said there was a gas station on the way.
So I took the right. And it was indeed a real road, not a dirt road. As for the rest, well, two things. One, the gas station was closed. I don’t mean it had just closed. By my best estimate, it had closed in 1957. It still had a sign that said, “Bring your Model T here.” Two, the GPS might have been right about the road eventually taking me to Highway 2, but before I got there I came upon a giant sign that said “Road Closed,” and the five dump trucks blocking the road just behind it suggested that it really was closed.
* * *
I’d say this was when the swearing began. I really don’t swear. I’ve told this before, but when I was in high school I had a friend named Jay who would hit me hard in the shoulder every time I swore. At first, this was annoying, and it sparked me to punch him back in the shoulder and swear even more often and even more vividly. Unfortunately for me, Jay was quite committed to the hitting me in the shoulder every time I swore routine, and Jay was a lot bigger than me, and at some point it just seemed a lot more sensible to stop swearing. I never really picked up the habit again after that. I’m not opposed to swearing — in fact, consider it an art form in the most capable hands — but it’s not for me. Now, if I swear, I sound impossibly out of date, like someone else saying “Fiddlesticks!” or “Great Scott!” So I generally leave swearing to the experts, and focus on other things.
But, really, there was nothing to do but swear. I was clearly not going to make it to Lincoln, which meant this whole trip had been a failure. But now there was the exciting new possibility of running out of gas three counties away from the nearest town. I decided that there really was nothing left to do except get back on the Interstate, head back South, and hope for the best. I had probably already driven the 50 miles I had given myself, maybe more, but I thought I saw a sliver of space between the needle and the E line, maybe enough to get me to a gas station somewhere. I once more turned to my GPS, asked her where I might find a gas station. She pointed me once more to that gas station on that closed road that had closed before the Beatles hit America. At this point, I took a baseball bat and smashed the GPS. No, wait, no I didn’t. I asked for a better choice. She said there was one about 13 miles South. I figured I might as well make a run for it.
* * *
Once more: If you have even a decent sense of direction and had been following the winding curves of this story, you will know that the gas station 13 miles South was the one on Highway 2, the one with the closed exit ramp, the one I had seen across the construction. I had not yet pieced together this useful bit of information. To be perfectly honest about it, I did not expect the car to make it the necessary 13 miles, and so I was spending all my energy swearing. I did call my wife to ask her for the AAA number. She wanted me to explain how this happened. I did not have time to go over the 2,374 words I have written so far. I told her to please text me the number, gently cutting her off when she started to tell me the story about how she once had to use AAA to …
The car — a Nissan — performed magnificently. I had long before turned off all the air vents, I was going what I deemed to be the most gas efficient speed (I figured it was 61 mph … I guess it’s actually 55 mph. Heck, the speed limit was 70). And it was about two miles from the exit that I realized what you already knew in the last paragraph. The gas station that the GPS was pointing me to was on the end of the closed exit ramp.
Again, I did some math in my head. I knew that the exit after Highway 2 was closed, and that the exit after that had no gas. So that meant I would have to go at least 25 more miles to get to a gas station. The needle was now on the wrong side of the E line, and I knew there was no chance i would make it another 25 miles. It was now or never. And so I went around the “Ramp closed,” sign, avoided the orange cones, and drove down the ramp. I turned right and got into the giant parking lot with the two gas stations. I was not proud of what I had done — I’m the sort of person who will stop at a red light for a half hour until I realize it’s broken — but I’d convinced myself that I had little choice. I even had my speech prepared if a police officer pulled me over.
Anyway, I had made it to the gas station with all the cars and people in it. Thing is, well, you know how the worst kinds of dreams seem to be over and then, you realize, they are not over? Right. The gas station wasn’t in working order. Neither was the other one in the parking lot. The cars I had seen in the parking lot belonged to road construction workers. The people I saw in the parking lot were there to either put in new gas pumps or to blow the place up, I have no idea. All I knew was that I was going to be in Iowa for the rest of my life.
I turned the car around and started to leave and realized that the ramp back up to the Interstate was also closed. There was orange fencing blocking the entire way. I thought about asking for help from one of the construction workers, but I didn’t have any idea how I could explain what had happened or how I had even ended up there. I saw a way around the orange fencing, drove off road, and headed back on to I-29 and the certain doom of running out of gas 20 miles from an exit.
* * *
It turns out that cars — or, anyway, this particular brand of car — can go a lot longer with the gas light blinking than you might expect. I suppose that’s a helpful feature, sort of like telling someone who is always late that the dinner is scheduled 45 minutes before it is actually scheduled. I somehow made it to the next exit, the one that was closed, and I somehow made it to the exit after that, the one that had no gas station. The GPS alerted me that I still had five more miles to go after that to get to a gas station, and I sort of relaxed. I could make it five miles even if the car stopped right there. It would be a tremendous pain in the neck. But I could physically do it. Then it was four miles. Then three. Then two. Then one.
The name of the town that saved me is Rock Port, Mo. I have since learned that Rock Port is the first city in the United States to have 100% of its power generated by wind, which is awesome. More importantly, though, it is a city with a gas station. According to the car manual, the car gas tank held 14 gallons. I pumped in in 14.1 gallons.
I eventually talked to Tom Osborne while sitting in my car in a McDonald’s parking lot in Mound City, and I’m grateful for the unbroken cell service. Osborne was wonderful, talking about his career, the things that matter in life and in football, the feelings he has about Joe Paterno. I wish I could have talked to him in person, but it really is important in life to count your blessings. At some point when he was telling a story, I happened to glance down at my GPS. And I saw its name.