On my way to camp at Garner State Park, I got trapped in Luling for an hour. For those of you unfamiliar with this quaint but smelly (something to do with perpetually leaking natural gas pipes) little town just north of I-10, closer to San Antonio than to Houston, it is home to some of the best BBQ in Texas. I had timed my trip to arrive in Luling around 12:30 to miss the lunch rush at City Market. I was a bit later than I intended because I spent too long at the Duluth Trading Company location in Katy.
The stop was to return a couple of jackets I had ordered online for Allen and me for Christmas that turned out to be too large (as in wrap-around-twice-and-still-have-room too large). I should have been in and out in 10 minutes or less, and would have been if the siren song sale sign hadn’t lured me onto the clearance rocks, I mean racks. At least I spent less than the credit for the returned items.
So, it was almost 1 o’clock by the time I reached downtown Luling, found a place to park with my trailer, and almost skipped the two blocks to City Market, where I headed straight to the cutting counter at the back and ordered a pound of moist brisket (an incalculable number of points on my diet) to go. I pulled a hot, thick, fatty slice out of the greasy butcher paper on the way back to my truck and gobbled it down, licking my fingers to get it all and wiping what was left on the seat of my pants.
As I pulled away from the curb, I intended to retrace my route back to the interstate (which was ridiculously out of the way, but I didn’t know that at the time, which is the first indicator of the chain of unintended consequences I was unwittingly setting in motion), but Google Maps—my truck doesn’t have built-in navigation on a nice screen in the dashboard, so I use my phone, which I can’t look at while I drive—had other ideas. The creepy, uncanny valley voice began rattling off directions using local street names that meant nothing to me:
In 800 feet turn left on Oak Street.
“What the hell do I want with Oak Street,” I asked the voice., but recalling the times I have suffered from ignoring Google Maps, I decided to turn. As I put my foot on the brake, I caught a glimpse of Oak Street going by. “No problem, I thought, GM will tell me to turn on the next street.”
In 500 feet, turn right Elm Street.
But before I could change lanes (I’m pulling a travel trailer, remember), Elm Street was in the rearview mirror. By now I knew that Google Maps and/or my phone was having one of its periodic nervous breakdowns, the manifesting symptom of which is advising turns too late for me to avail myself of its advice. But I’ve played this game before, so I suspected it was trying to get me to turn around an go the other way. Nearing the interstate, I could see why. Westbound traffic was at a virtual standstill as two lanes were merging into one. Pulling off onto the shoulder, I gave GM enough time to calculate its next move and me enough time to make that move safely. Three dirt roads later I was once again heading into downtown Luling.
When I got there, I was instructed to “turn left on Texas 80 South,” which I assumed would take me back to I-10. Congratulating myself on being open-minded enough to let GM guide me around the slowdown, I did as directed and before long saw the interstate ahead. However, the single lane of creeping traffic was still there. “Well, at least I’m further along than I would have been,” I reasoned and prepared to turn right, in keeping with the computerized directions I was receiving. But, unbeknownst to Google Maps, the entrance ramp was blocked by barricades, behind which sat a police cruiser with its lights on.
Not knowing what else to do, I pulled over as far to the right as I could on the bridge going over I-10, parked, and got out to ask the police officer for help. He seemed a bit annoyed and rather brusquely informed me that I was blocking a lane of traffic on the bridge. Telling him I thought I was on the shoulder didn’t help, but I persisted.
“I’m not from around here, and I’m trying to go west. How do I do so?”
Taking me for an idiot, he pointed out what he thought was obvious:
“There are two ramps. This one goes west, the other goes east. Take the eastbound ramp, go to the first exit, get off, make a U-turn, and get back on going west.”
I wanted to tell him I had already been at that ramp and didn’t get on because I wanted to avoid all this backup, but not as much as I wanted to get off that bridge before he gave me a ticket, so I did as he suggested. Going east I got more and more frustrated, and determined not to sit in that line of westbound traffic even if I had to cancel my camping trip and head back home. I took the exit, but instead of making the U-turn, I headed back toward downtown Luling. If you’re keeping count, this makes three.
Thinking back to the design of the Texas highway system, I knew that US 90 parallels I-10, more or less, so I reasoned I should be able to go west on US 90 until I could catch another road and go back south to I-10 beyond the slowdown. Trusting GM one last time, I entered my destination, tapped the screen, and watched a calculated route appear that looked like (I’ll come back to this point in a minute) what I had in mind. So, off I went. And guess what. It took me back to the same closed westbound ramp again. Luckily, I realized what was happening before my police buddy saw me, turned around and went back to Downtown Luling (#4).
What I needed was a map. A big, paper, never-folds-back-the-same-way-twice map. But I didn’t have one. And they certainly don’t give them away at gas stations anymore. Brick and mortar bookstores have them, but I was in Luling. So, I did what I should have done much earlier. I parked, got out my reading glasses, and did the finger-and-thumb-spread thing to zoom in on my tiny little phone screen until my feeble eyes could see exactly how to get to US 90, which I then did, and stayed on till it linked back up with I-10 at Seguin. It wasn’t totally smooth sailing all the way to Garner, but at least I had effected my escape from Luling and lost only about an hour.
After my incarceration, I became philosophical—not in the Boethian sense of resigning myself to my misfortune, but rather in the sense of parsing it for timeless truths, or at least relevant life lessons with writing about. And what I concluded is that cartography is the key.
Paper maps are designed for spatial thinking, because we use them to navigate across space. They show us where things are in relation to each other and how to get from one to the other. A map plainly shows the exit I took to go to Luling is actually quite a bit southeast (i.e. below and to the right) of town, meaning I traveled northwest when I left I-10. But this road gradually curves as it approaches downtown, so I ended up traveling west. Therefore, the left turn onto Texas 80 South sent me due south back to the interstate and the closed entrance ramp, about two miles west of my original exit. When my police buddy sent me back to the east on I-10, that completed the third leg of a giant triangle, bringing me back to where I had started.
I have a pretty good mental map in my head (especially for someone with aphantasia), so I knew roughly what I had done, but not as clearly as a paper map would have shown me in a single intuitive glance. With a paper map, I certainly wouldn’t have ended up back at the closed ramp a second time, and I would have known immediately that finding US 90 W was the only way out.
That’s the problem with Google Maps. Like all things digital, it’s based on linear thinking. It gives a series of steps to follow, one after the other, but never shows us the big picture so we can use our own judgment.
In 800 feet turn left on Oak Street.
In 500 feet, turn right Elm Street.
But, if one piece of information on which it has based its recommended route is incorrect (e.g. the closed ramp onto westbound I-10), you can end up going in circles—or triangles. And it never apologizes for the grief it causes.
So, it turns out cartography isn’t really the key. Thinking is. Obviously, there are times when linear thinking is useful, but not when it is the only mode in which we operate. Some parts of life are simple and orderly and can be completed successfully by dutifully following step-by-step instructions. But most are not. Most of life requires the agility and subtlety of spatial thinking. Life is messy, full of closed ramps and condescending coppers.
But there is also moist brisket.
And clearance racks at Duluth Trading Company.
And heart-breakingly beautiful late January days at Garner State Park.