Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

Driving By Numbers

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: Country roads, Driving instructions, Getting lost, Cindy Murphy,

A photo of Cindy MurphyI live in a Mitten … The Mitten, to be exact.  That’s it … hold up your left hand, fingers together, thumb out at a 45 degree angle.  There you have it – a map of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  Is that Detroit?  Or an age spot?  You’d think with this handy, built-in map I have wherever I go, I’d never get lost.  Oh, if only these veins, wrinkles, and scars were roads! 

I’ve always been bad with directions.  A recent case in point involves the final leg of the quest to find my young daughter a pair of used cross-country ski boots before Christmas this year.  It proved to be more difficult than I imagined; a good set of used boots are scarce.  I’d scoured used sporting goods stores, thrift shops, and Ebay, and was out of options until someone told me about a man he knew with children who skied.  I called, and sure enough, he had outgrown ski equipment to sell. 

My elation turned to dread when he gave me driving directions.  “It’s easy,” he assured me after I groaned into the phone.  He didn’t understand.  His directions were all “number roads.”  M-43, 52nd Street, and CR-673 – the sum of this equation only added up to one thing:  I was sure to get lost.  I have a deep-seeded inability to grasp anything to do with numbers, probably stemming from that incident in 3rd grade when I was caught cheating on a multiplication test.  Beth Winters didn’t know her times tables any better than I did – which is why I got caught; we had all the same wrong answers.  I should have copied Robby Fisher’s paper; he got an “A,” and I would have avoided a lifelong number phobia.   

Assigning a number to a road takes no imagination; 52nd St. is not nearly as poetically verdant as Forest Lane, as stately as Oak Avenue, or breezy as Lakeshore Drive.  It seems some number road namers have a sense of humor, though.  Take our 71st ½ Street, for example.  What exactly, is a half street?  Will it lead me only half-way there?  Or is it a street that goes the distance and a half?  Either way, I’m sure it’s a long way to travel just to end up in the middle of nowhere. 

The ski boot man’s final instructions were “turn east on South Street.”  Is that even possible?  Could it be anymore confusing?  People in Michigan seem to have never learned our right from our left.   “Turn right” or “turn left” is just not in our vocabulary.  We do, however, know our north from our south, east from our west and everything in between like the back of our hand.  It must have something to do with that built-in map.

We might have once, perhaps long ago, known right from left.  The term “Michigan Left” implies it.  This is simply not the case, because to execute a “Michigan Left,” you must turn right.  Begin by driving past the street on which you wish to turn left.  Continue heading straight until coming to a break in the median NOT marked “emergency vehicles only” (this is important; don’t ask how I know). This is where you turn left.  Then head back in the direction from whence you just came until reaching your original target left turn.  Turn right.  Only it’s not right; it’s south.  Or maybe north, east, or west.  Don’t ask me; I got lost back at the U-turn.

Being an unwitting but frequent visitor to the Middle of Nowhere, I’d probably benefit greatly from using a GPS.  Guided like the sea-faring explorers of old were guided by the North Star, I’d surely reach my destination without getting lost.

I wonder how much longer America would have remained undiscovered if Columbus had a GPS? 

I borrowed a Tomtom once for a long road trip to ensure I wouldn’t end up in Montana when I was trying to reach North Carolina.  It started off pleasant enough as a reassuring female voice calmly told me, “Your turn is at 50 yards … your turn is at 25 yards.”

The relationship turned sour quickly, though.  Without warning, she turned into backseat driver, screaming out directions every two seconds.  “Turn right in 10 feet … turn right at 5 feet … turn right here!  NO!  Not that way, I said turn right!!  NOW!!”

“Is that north or south?!” I screamed back, “I’m from Michigan, dammit!” 

 In addition (which I can usually do in my head), GPS takes the thrill of adventure out of driving.  There’s no greater sense of accomplishment then arriving at my destination after stopping for directions in the middle of nowhere, and hearing, “turn east after you come to old man Macgregor’s barn where old man Macgregor used to live before his barn burned down, and he moved south to Florida.”

“Uhm….?”

“You know the place.  It’s across from where the Swansons lived before…”

 “They moved to Florida?”

 “Arizona.”

“Come over for lunch,” a friend asked.  She lives on a piece of land she calls “Happy Farm.”  I happily accepted her lunch invitation … and then remembered the last time I visited. Happy Farm is out in the country; to get to “Out in the Country” you must first navigate half a dozen “number roads.”  When I finally arrived at Happy Farm, I felt like I was ready for the funny farm. 

“Head east on 109th Avenue to 64th St … turn north and follow Route 59 to Old County Rd 113 …"  As she rattled off the directions, I vaguely wondered where they put the new and improved County Rd 113, and where I’d end up if I subtracted 64th St from 109th Avenue, and multiplied it by Route 59.  I was lost long before I walked out my door.

On the road, I looked down at my directions to see which exit number to take off I196: 

“Get bird food and lightbulbs.

Fill bird-feeder.

Change lightbulb in stairwell…”

We had not only been living in the dark inside the house while the birds starved outside because I kept forgetting to buy bird food and lightbulbs, but I’d grabbed my "reminder" list instead of the driving directions.  I would’ve called my friend on my cell instead of turning back home to get them … but I forgot her number.

I wonder … did Columbus have these kinds of problems?

cindy murphy
6/1/2011 7:39:13 AM

I agree, Michelle – tourists ask some of the most obvious questions; just like Shelby, I’ve gotten the “where is the beach?” question myself more than once. You can’t miss it – Lake Michigan would be a clue you’d think; it’s huge. But tourists are fun (for the most part), and we’ve all been one at one place or another. Too funny about the wedding. It’s a good thing there wasn’t a funeral in town that day! Can you imagine someone “following the cars” and ending up at a grave-site ceremony instead of an open bar reception?


michelle house
5/29/2011 1:10:35 AM

lol, is right. Most people knew what we were talking about. Those who did not, went to find a grown up who did. One time, there was a big wedding at the Catholic Church, and a friend got so tired of telling people where it was, he just started telling people, "Follow that car" they all made it to the wedding. I can give great directions, (now) following them not so much. :-p I lived in Vermont for a few years, tourists annoyed the heck out of me, "Where is the best place to see the leaves, changing colors?" Me; "D'oh, where the trees are, drive up the mountain" Shelby will learn how to give directions, or not. lol. And to be honest, a few times, as tweens, we would on purpose, send people in the wrong direction. What can I say, we were bored. :-p


cindy murphy
5/25/2011 7:57:01 AM

Hi, Michelle. Too funny about giving directions in a small town as a kid by using landmarks because you didn't know the roads...it made me laugh, because just yesterday, Shelby did the same thing to me trying to describe where a friend of hers lives. "You know, Mom...it's on the outside of town on that road that leads into town, it's either called Broadway or Phoenix, I can't remember which, but it's the one the Art Center is on." “Uhm…Dear? Broadway and Phoenix both run into town from opposite directions; they intersect, and the Art Center is on the intersection corner.” She didn’t understand my confusion. I shudder to think about her giving directions to other people. Our town doubles in size this time of year with summer residents and tourists. As kind of a hometown pride thing, one summer she and her friends wrote “Not a Tourist” on their hats, t-shirts or whatever else they happened to be wearing while downtown….until they got tired of giving directions to tourists, that went something like this: “Where’s the beach?” (they were standing in sight of Lake Michigan) “Down by the lake.” “Where’s the lake?” “It’s that big body of water we’re looking toward. The one with the lighthouse in front of it.”


cindy murphy
5/25/2011 7:35:24 AM

Yes, Stepper - I have been a resident of the State of Confusion for many years, but have recently discovered is all really the State of Mind I'm in. Pretty neat about the interstates with even numbers running north/south, and odd numbers running east/west. Uhm….but if you ever do make it to Michigan, I might throw that to the wayside if I was you. Both I-75 and I-196 will take you north, while I-94 and I-96 will either take you to Detroit on the east side of the state, or if you’re traveling west, you’ll end up on the coast of Lake Michigan. Now, I know I have a thing against numbers, but I’m thinkin’ 75 is an odd number which, if following the even/odd directions, shouldn’t be running to the north (maybe it’s just an odd-ball). But I’m also pretty sure, last time I checked, that 94 and 96 were both even, so evidently they shouldn’t run east to west (or vice-versa). Maybe, like 75, they’re odd too! Quite possibly, it’s all a ploy to keep everyone in the State of Confusion. It’s our state tax dollars hard at work, you know…..and it is quite taxing trying to keep it all straight!


michelle house
5/25/2011 12:00:07 AM

lol, loved this blog. As a kid, hanging around a small town, we gave directions, to passing motorists, as churches, trees, houses, etc. We had no idea,what the names of the roads were. :)


chris davis
5/24/2011 7:42:54 PM

Great blog Cindy! It brings back fond memories of wondering where I was while I insisted I wasn’t “lost” because I knew the state I was in. Of course, it was the state of confusion, but that’s nothing new. And I like your driving tip about Lake Michigan always being west, but it doesn’t seem to work out very well down here. Some day I’ll visit Michigan to see how it works out. The interstate numbers give you a basic clue about directions. Even numbers run towards or from Cheboygan. Odd numbers run towards Lake Michigan unless you actually reach the water in which case they (and hopefully you) go away from the lake.


cindy murphy
5/22/2011 7:35:32 AM

Hi, Shannon. Yep, I got the ski boots from the man, and only made two wrong turns getting them – the guy failed to mention when giving me directions, that 52nd Street becomes CR 673, and is not a crossroad. The north/south/east/west thing here is not too hard to figure out…if you can get your bearings from Lake Michigan; it’s always west. You can almost sense its presence, even from a few miles inland. Sometimes when I get turned around (I’m not going to go so far as to say lost), I just head west, and sooner or later, I’ll end up close enough to home to figure out where I need to be. Too far from Lake Michigan though, and I am definitely lost. The bent telephone pole would have driven me nuts too – landmarks are fine if they’re given in conjunction with street names, or are unique enough that they can’t be mistaken for something else. Colors are a different story. Not to discriminate the genders, but men seem to be a bit more color-impaired than women. I was once given a “yellow house with purple trim” as a landmark. I knew I was getting close, but saw no such colored house – then knew I’d went too far, and turned back. I found it on my second pass - the CREAM house with BURGANDY trim.


s.m.r. saia
5/21/2011 6:47:09 AM

This was so funny! I don't think I would make it through Michigan, as my particular problem is the East/West/North/South thing! Did you ever get the boots? When we got directions to go up to my in-laws cabin it was the same kind of thing, turn left at so and so's barn, turn at the bent telephone pole, which was particularly annoying to me since not a one of them seemed to be standing up straight! I have yet to take the GPS plunge. I usually map quest stuff which tends to get me at least 90% there, more or less....


cindy murphy
5/19/2011 7:23:47 AM

Ah, Dave…so you’ve experienced “the Hand”. It’s kinda funny, actually. “You want to go right about here”, someone will say, pointing to the third knuckle from the left. Michiganders in the thumb area have it easy…because that’s what it’s called: The Thumb Area. It’s much simpler to say, “I’m from the Thumb” than “I live about halfway between the point where the pinkie meets the hand and where the hand meets the wrist.” (That’s where I live.) Of course, even that is easier to say than living in a blob state which has no body part shape in which to reference when describing where you live. I like to drive, and love a good road-trip, long or short. I’m with you – most times I don’t mind getting a bit lost, (as long as I’m not under a time constraint). But I am bad at following directions, and equally as bad at giving them. When we moved back to Michigan after I lived out-of-state for about 15 years, I was very conscience about the whole north, south, east, and west thing. I remember giving a man direction by telling him “if you’re facing north, it’s on the west”. It wasn’t until I sent him on his way with this explicit set of directions, that I realized what I said. Think about it. Where would it be if he was facing south? Or east for that matter? Too funny about the Mr. T. GPS. I’d pick Johnny Depp’s voice to give directions. I certainly wouldn’t mind then getting lost, and would probably do it on purpose just to hear him talk to me. Swoon!


nebraska dave
5/18/2011 5:59:47 PM

Cindy, Cindy, Cindy, you kept me in stitches with this post. When folks travel with me I always tell them that we will arrive at our destination and we will never be lost. However, we just might have an unplanned adventure or two along with way. You get to meet some colorful folks when stopping to get directions. Yes, I know I'm a man and I do stop for directions .... eventually. GPSs are a wonderful addition to this century's digital inventions. I once was traveling with a friend and we had the voice set on Mr. T. When we pulled off to get a bite of lunch this Mr. T. voice came through the speaker and said, "Your off the road fool. Turn around and get back on the road." We both busted up laughing. GPSs are good but they are still not 100% correct. There's still nothing that can replace some good ole' Michigan hand knowledge. The first time I got directions while driving through Michigan and the started showing me how to get there on his left hand, I thought it rather odd but have since come to be enlightened about the shape of Michigan being the shape of a left hand mitten. It's kind of fun seeing how people in different parts of the country hand out directions. It's the same in Nebraska about giving directions by turning at places of former owners. Have a great day at the nursery/home garden.