Driving By Numbers

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I 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.”


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

 “They moved to Florida?”


“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?