I have learned not to get lost on foot in the woods, but I have never mastered route finding in a car. Road maps never print enough detail; when reality presents unexpected streets and signs, I can’t reconcile them with my broad-brush concept of the route. Sundown strains my sense of direction. The result is something like what happened last January 29.
I was on my way to pick up Jonathan Waterman, a climber, writer, and photographer, who has navigated alone on crevasse-covered snowfields in Alaska—who, when packing for one of his Arctic trips, had to decide if he needed a shotgun. He had flown into Boston from Colorado to speak about the Arctic at the annual meeting of the Appalachian Mountain Club, which publishes this journal. He had told me that he used to study this journal cover to cover.
It was about 7 degrees, and my 1996 Subaru’s heating system groaned, sickly. I steered around the spider’s web of downtown Boston trying to find the tunnel to Logan Airport. Shiny cars cut me off and honked; I grew confused and took a wrong turn that became several. Somehow, I ended up turned around, on Beacon Street, considerably west of the airport. I pulled over and called my friends Phil and Cay, who live nearby. That evening, as the sun set, I took Phil and Cay’s calm directives, determined to stop wasting time like this from now on. Waterman was used to the cold, but I wasn’t going to leave him standing in 7 degrees F in street clothes.
I thought about that time three years before, when I had tried to drive from the Boston Public Garden to Cambridge, misplaced my cell phone and, an hour later, found myself talking to a policeman on a borrowed phone in a convenience store on the wrong side of the Charles River. I was actually crying. “Officer, this is ridiculous!”
“I agree, ma’am,” the voice came, patiently. “This is ridiculous.”
He was very specific: Turn right out of the driveway. Take the next right. The crucial lesson that night was to understand which way I had to go to get to Cambridge. And to realize I needed glasses. And that it is important to ask people for directions.
Now, wearing the glasses, I rumbled through the tunnel and entered the Logan Airport maze, bore left to arrivals, and pulled to the empty curb, where in the poor lighting I made out that the police officers were waving me on. Chin jutted forward, I shifted back into third to loop back around. One wrong veer and the Subaru would be roaring on some generic exit ramp toward New Hampshire.
My cell phone rang. It was Waterman. He was at the curb. I told him I was circling around. “I have a bachelor’s degree; I ought to be able to figure this out,” I joked. He didn’t answer. I made it around and called him back. “I’m right here,” he said. I didn’t see him. He waved his down-clad arms.
Now we would find our way to Rawbert’s Organic Garden Café in Beverly. As he slid into the seat, I handed him the directions, saying, “You’ll have to help me navigate.” He nodded. He’d grown up around here. Immediately, we began to call out landmarks and mileages (printed versus actual).
I apologized for the heating system. He said he understood about old Subarus. He said he already missed his wife and 3-year-old, who had just mastered toilet training. I said that when my daughters were toilet training, they had learned bit by bit. As we shared stories of parenthood in the freezing air, every so often he’d say something like, “You’re supposed to take this next exit, but the numbers aren’t adding up.” It began to be clear that something was wrong with the computerized instructions. His common sense told him that.
Closer to the restaurant, Waterman said, “Let’s get out and walk—it has to be here somewhere.” He asked a stranger, who sent us a block over.
Soon we were settling in with the menu of uncooked entrees at Rawbert’s, where Waterman began to talk about his days as a teenager, discovering the mountains despite what the adults in his life worried he should be doing.
About This Article
This column I write for Appalachia is called “The Long Way Home” because it describes the importance of long treks in the backcountry to get back to what I believe. It’s named from a line in a Leo Kottke song, “Morning is the long way home.”
“Where Exit Ramps Are Nameless” refers to Waterman’s book, Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
(Norton, 2005). His new book about the Colorado River is Running Dry (National Geographic Books, 2010).
For more about Appalachia, go here.