22 August 2009

Quakers in the Country: You Can't Get Here From There

We live on the edge of civilized world, or maybe just a little beyond it. I know this because there are certain signs that I can interpret. Where I live, for instance, I have no neighbors. Well, actually, I do have neighbors, but they usually visit either in a pickup or drive in on an ATV, because none of them lives less than two miles away. There used to be a school at the foot of our property, next to the Lampville blacksmith, down by the creek. It’s still there, but hasn’t had any students for nearly 100 years, so we don’t have any kids walking by. When my wife tethers the donkey, as often as not he stretches his rope across the road to eat on the other side, and we hear about it every week or so when a car blows its horn trying to get him to cross back. And of course, the dogs sleep in the middle of the road on sunny days, because such has been the right of dogs in the country since time immemorial.

But these are minor indicators of our distance from civilization, and aren’t strictly deterministic. Lots of people have animals loose around here, after all. Cows and bulls occasionally wander down the road, sometimes followed by their owners later on, sometimes not. Sheep are a real annoyance, because when sheep break loose, they don’t know what to do about it. And when they see you, they run up and mill about your legs, bleating piteously for mercy, because they hope you’ll be able to figure out where they’re supposed to go. So loose animals don’t do it, alone. And lots of places don’t have neighbors, at least residents, in the warehouse districts on the edges of big cities.

So how do I know that I live on the edge of the world? Because if you’re trying to use modern technology to pay me a visit, you can’t get here, from wherever you are, at least not the first time. In most places in 21st century America, you can use a road map to get to where you want to go. But where I live, a modern road map will take you into the woods and abandon you there to die.

I first became aware of this peculiarity while trying to use the county map to go from Barnesville to my house, after meeting one First Day, soon after we moved here. The county map is very detailed, and showed a clear route along Cat Hollow Road from Warren Township to Goshen Township, where we live. But as we drove along Cat Hollow, we came to an old steel cable stretched across the road to stop traffic. Cat Hollow Road petered out in the woods just beyond the cable in front of us, although the map showed it headed straight home. Curious, I thought.

Later on, I tried to get to town along Township 192, which the map showed heading straight east to Barnesville after it crossed the blacktop two miles over on the next ridgeline. But when I got to the ridge, the crossroads on the map turned out to be a T-junction instead, and my road didn’t exist. In front of me was a more or less endless cow pasture.

I asked about this from one of the members of my meeting.

“Ahh,” he said. “The roads on the map aren’t the same as the ones on the ground.”

“Say that again.”

“The maps show the roads the way they were before the strip miners came in and changed the topography. Lots of those old roads don’t exist anymore, or go somewhere different from what it shows on the map.”

“Then why are they on the map that way?”

“In case the county wants to put some of them back in. As long as they stay official roads, the county still has legal right of way. So they keep them on the map.”

This was brought home to me clearly one day while I waited for a garbage company from another town to deliver a dumpster out to our beekeeping warehouse. When he finally showed up, he came from the south, not the north, which was a long and difficult detour from what he should have been doing.

“Is this the right place? My map is confusing.”

“Show me your map.”

I looked at his map. It happened to be an old map of my county before any of the mining, and I couldn’t even find my own road. Now, I’m professionally trained in map reading, and I can find my way cross-country at night by looking at the stars. But his map was 25 years old and might as well have shown the surface of the Moon. I located my township (36 by 36 miles), then the blacktop five miles north, but that was it. I looked for my road in the southeast quarter of the southeast quarter of Section 8, and it wasn’t there. And my house has been here over a hundred years.

“Throw your map away and take this one, or you’ll never get out of here.”

“Thanks. Where do you want your dumpster?”

The next time I was in the city, where they have internet broadband, I asked a friend to let me into Google Earth. I punched in the data for where I lived, hit enter, and was greeted with a white screen. In the middle of it were three words: “No data available.”


Since then we’ve gotten used to living out where there is no data available, and I suppose there might even be data available now, if I were to go into town and check. But then, maybe not. Our road has a characteristic valued by country dwellers who like quiet: there is nowhere you can go on it that you can’t get to quicker and with less hassle by going a different way. Two roads out of here force you to cross streams running over the road, and the last one is three feet deep in snow regularly during the winter.

As part of a recent career change to steering semi trailers cross-country, I bought a GPS unit at an Ohio truck stop. You know, a Global Positioning System machine. For a truck driver, they’re great, as I spend a lot of time going to obscure destinations at night, where messing up means a 20-mile circle finding somewhere to turn around. The GPS shows me in advance whether I can get back onto a highway if I take a particular exit, and leads me through difficult truck routes in difficult towns.

My first experience with GPS was over 30 years ago, when I worked summers as an air gun mechanic on seismograph boats in the Caribbean. Back then, a state-of-the-art GPS looked like a line of refrigerators, and you were delighted to get a position within 3000 feet of actual. Mostly we used old WW II-era SHORAN sets, instead. But this little job that I bought for the truck is the size of a Prince Albert can, and even talks to me while I try to steer the trailer around the countryside, letting me know when I take a wrong turn, and showing me the best way to fix it. It works great, except when I try to use it to get home.

Yesterday I stuck it on the windshield of the car while we drove back from the lake, after giving the kids what will probably be their last chance to swim until next summer. We got to the last town, and Emma calmly directed, “Just ahead, turn left.”

I said that now the GPS units talk to you. I prefer to listen to “Emma,” a sophisticated Briton with a low, sexy voice, who I might actually like to meet someday.

The kids all hollered, “Go home the long way,” so my lovely wife turned the car right, against Emma’s advice. Not a problem, as the street turned round and we would meet up with the secondary road on the other side of town. We’d hit the right road again in a few blocks. But Emma had other ideas, because, you see, Emma was using a map.

“Just ahead, bear right,” Emma directed.

“Go right?” said Shawna.

“Sure. Let’s see she how she does,” I replied. Emma is designed to instantly compensate for a wrong turn by finding the next alternate route, and directing you to it. This would be a good time to see where she would take us.

Emma headed us out on a string of tiny roads that wound through the countryside like a snake, and gradually took us to a heading that would take us home. She was looking pretty good. And then, Emma calmly intoned, “Just ahead, turn right.”

“What? Here?” says Shawna.

“She’s going for the road where the church used to be,” I said, a sudden suspicion growing in my mind. I knew now where we were going. It was one of the old strip-mined sections. A dead zone. Goshen Township’s Bermuda Triangle. Emma was headed straight for it.

More miles went by, and then I was sure. We came to a fork, and Emma calmly intoned, “Just ahead, turn right.”

Shawna stopped the car. “Chestnut Level is just up this road to the left,” she said. “I won’t do it.”

“Emma is headed for the creek road. You remember? It’s that old road that used to go from here to Lampville, down by the first ford. She thinks it’s still there.”

Of course, to a computer, the fact that the creek road appears on every county map in existence is sufficient proof that you can drive somewhere on it. You have to live here to know that the road has been gone for 30 years.

A mile farther on, and Emma’s folly is clear. The little yellow arrow on the screen directs us to drive straight west to our house, but the view through the windshield shows an old sign that reads, “Dead End.” Now, around here, you take signs like that with a grain of salt. One of the main roads to my house has more or less permanent “High Water” signs on it all the time, not because the creek is really high, but because the road falls into it so often that the township workers just leave the signs up permanently to scare the tourists away. But I know our Bermuda Triangle, and around there a “Dead End” sign means what it says. Emma had met her match.

Shawna turns the car around and we head up the previous fork to the ridge top. Emma objects gently for a while then reconciles herself to the new route and calculates a new set of arrows that actually do take us home, this time. As we pass by the road to the last creek crossing, the little map in the GPS unit shows a set of imaginary roads converging on the ford from the northwest, the direction from which Emma would have preferred us to have arrived. But out the car window in that direction I see nothing but 80-foot maple and locust trees.

So, if you ever decide to visit us out here in the country, don’t bother to use a high-tech GPS to get to the house, because you likely can’t get there from wherever you are. And don’t bother to use a map, either, because it won’t do you much good if you get lost.

Call ahead, instead, and I’ll give you directions from the real world:

“From town, go right at the third T-junction. Then left at the next fork, right at the next fork, right at the next fork, left at the next fork, and head for the top of the hill. Stop when you see the donkey in the road. You can’t miss us.


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Directions from the real world... Very nice! *smile*

kevin roberts said...

Hi Cat. Where've you been?

Maybe I've been gone instead.

We tried her again today when we went to the wedding of one my ministers. First, Emma tried to get us to turn off the road into a pond, and then she announced "You have reached your destination!" at an empty piece of woods between towns.

On the way home she kept suggesting roads that we could see were actually just gravel paths leading 30 feet off the road and ending at a locked gate.

Very amusing.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the field trip to the old Mount Pleasant meetinghouse some of us took during OYM this year. Our driver, who was from out of town, kept asking if he were to go "straight" as we snaked up and down through the hills and hollers, whilst another non-local called out directions from his GPS-enabled phone.

If we hadn't had friend Seth in the vehicle, we might've experienced a long, detoured adventure, indeed!

-- Laura

Ember said...

:0) Wonderful.

elderberryjam said...

Thank you for further solidifying that I will never buy one of these things. And I think you live very near to where my grandmother grew up at least some of her childhood when they weren't in Speidel.


kevin roberts said...

Mount Pleasant used to be easy to find, Laura. The old accounts of the YM there talk about how you could see the town and the meeting house on top of that hill for miles across the fields. Now that the woods have grown up in the abandoned farms, you can't tell where you are until you're right there.

I've bought corn syrup there for the bees on occasion, and it takes me two hours to drive thirty miles. You were lucky to get out alive, I think.

kevin roberts said...

Now, Gwen, the GPS units have a place. But you can't trust anything that has a programmer behind it without remembering that the programmer is a human being. Just the other day one of the drivers in my company took the top off his trailer in downtown Chicago because his GPS told him to drive under a bridge. He couldn't. Emma tried that with me too, but I read the signs on the bridge before I try to go under them.