It was while zooming down an offramp outside of Portland one night, straining to read the Google maps instructions I’d printed out, that I realized it was time to buy a GPS. I didn’t yet own a smartphone, so when I returned to Seattle, I went to Best Buy and asked the guy there if these contraptions actually worked. I’d always been a little weird about following other people’s directions. I was certain they’d forget some small but crucial detail, and then there’d I’d be at a surprise fork in the road, with a 50-50 chance of getting lost.
“Have you used one?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’ve used this one, actually. It’ll get you there.” He shrugged. “I don’t use it anymore though.”
“I like to get there myself.”
Good for you, I thought. I bought it, downloaded the maps, and tested it to see if it could guide me reliably to my mother in-law’s. It did. I enjoyed the woman’s pleasant voice telling me which way to turn, and the warning she’d give me as those turns approached.
I had a gig coming up at a Library in Bremerton, a small town on the peninsula directly across Puget Sound from Seattle. Though I now had my GPS, I’d still scouted out my route the night before. I’d have to drive south to Tacoma, then turn north and head back up the peninsula along the coast, my drive forming a perfect two-hundred-mile U. How annoying to have to go down then up like that, I thought.
I set out the next day along I-5, which cut through downtown Seattle before winding toward Tacoma. As I approached the skyscrapers, I was pulled from my thoughts by my navigator’s voice.
“In one mile, take next right to Mercer Street.”
“What?” I barked. “What the hell are you talking about?” I’d seen my route, and I didn’t need to turn right or left for another hundred miles.
“Take exit 167 to Mercer Street.”
“No! What the hell?”
I passed the exit and she told me she was rerouting. She then told me to take the next exit, and the next, and the next. Finally, when I was passed Seattle, she rerouted once more, telling me to stay on I-5 for another ninety-five miles. Strange.
It was a long drive. There was some rush hour traffic, and it was dark when I reached Tacoma, but it was nice to have my guide to point me toward Bremerton now that we were on the same page. By this time, I had named her Cecily. North and north I went until I reached the town’s outskirts, and now Cecily was chatting away, telling me right and left every block or two. How nice not to have read directions on the passenger seat, to just listen and follow and know I was headed in the right direction.
Cecily guided me left and right and left and then straight and then right once more.
“Destination is on your right.”
I looked around. I was in a dead-end. There was no library. There was nothing. There was only an empty parking lot. I checked the address. I’d gotten it correct. For a moment, I despaired. Not because I might be late, though that worry was already turning in my stomach, but simply from being lost and how inevitable that felt. I had depended on something other than myself and look where I was.
What’s more, somewhere in my mind there hovered the notion that I could become so lost, be led so far astray, that I would cross into a land so terminally far from home that there was no way back. Failure, I sometimes feared, was such a place; creativity and ambition’s dead-end.
I fished for my phone and called the library. I still had time to get there. Though we had some trouble determining where I had been led, they gave me some directions through the town. I had by now surrendered to being very late or never making it there at all if that was what was meant to be. In the end, I found the place, and apologized to the students for having to wait, and dove into the class. It was a good one.
When our time I was up, I explained that I needed to hit the road immediately, that I had a very long, long drive back to Seattle.
One of the students looked at me curiously. “Why not just take the ferry?”
“The ferry, you say?”
“Yeah. It’ll take you right to downtown.”
“Is it close?”
“Five minutes away.”
As I sat in my car waiting for the ferry, Cecily silent and waiting beside me, I thought about how much I’d enjoyed that class, and how if you had told me ten years ago I’d be teaching anything, I’d have thought you were talking about someone else. Yet here I was, and happy for it. I would occasionally try to retrace my route, as if understanding it could serve as a guide for my future travels, but all the odd unexpected turns seemed random until they landed me where I wanted to be.
In Cecily’s defense, she led me faithfully from then on to every class, conference, or interview, until I broke down and bought an iPhone. It was a strange start to our time together, but I take some responsibility for that. Perhaps she thought I wanted to take the longest way possible, which, I have to admit, has often turned out to be my preferred path.