Driving Myself Crazy In America

Thought Catalog, August 17, 2015.

This is going to sound self-congratulatory, but I think I deserve a pat on the back for having a superior vehicular aptitude. But I (once) scored poorly when my sense of directions was put to the test.

In 2004, I moved to a sleepy, Midwestern town, where the ruler-straight roads were built to geometric perfection, etched on a pancake-flat terrain, where traffic was scarce.

After having conquered New Delhi’s Byzantine maze of choked, potholed, and sometimes, even sign-less arterial network—the equivalent of a Ph.D. in driving—steering anywhere in the world would be like going back to grade school.

I was kidding myself.

Toward the close of my first semester at the university, I bought a car, and obtained the obligatory driver’s license. And then it struck me with a thunderous force as to how I was to be mobile without befriending the roads?

Nowhere is it easier driving in the U.S. than in rural America, for there isn’t a flummoxing latticework of tiered interstates and pop-up exits.

Someone, once told me, that I couldn’t get lost in Brookings, South Dakota, even if I tried, Well, I proved her wrong. Many a time, I found myself driving desultorily, missing my destination, sometimes by a whisker; sometimes, by an entire town.

But by the time I’d got accustomed to driving in the Midwest, life took me in another direction: to a quaint hamlet in New England, where much was the same, except for the layout of the roads.

There was a mind-boggling web of turnpikes, flyovers, exit ramps, bridges, and multiple lanes, which didn’t get a moment’s respite from buttressing the perennial rivers of high-speed traffic.

Faced with this daunting scenario, I had two alternatives—both equally grim. I could either hole up within the dreary safety of my apartment or I could head out into the unknown, with the dire possibility that I might never return home again.

It was during those anxiety-filled days that I learned of the G.P.S.-guided navigation device, the TomTom Go 510 (which was later to become the symbol of my mobility.)

With my palm-size, dashboard-mounted savior, I started taking my baby steps, with very short trips, no farther than 15 miles from base. Even if I veered off track, I knew my on-board navigator would always nudge me back on course.

After gaining some confidence, I took a jaunt into New Jersey, braving a journey of 90-odd miles, one way, which entailed jostling through Manhattan’s motor madness.

On a clear, blue, spring morning, I punched in my destination on the G.P.S.—Montclair, New Jersey. From now on, it’d be like flying an airplane on autopilot. I’d still be required to be mindful of passing traffic, and observe the traffic signals, but I’d be free of the onerous burden of plotting routes.

The ride from New Milford, Connecticut to New Jersey was, well, if not an absolute breeze, it certainly wasn’t an ordeal either. I’d accomplished my goal without a pounding heart, a petrified facial expression, and profuse perspiration.

It was on the return trip that it all began, the chaos and the commotion. “Go straight on,” said the clinically-calm voice of the TomTom.

And off I went, only to discover that the instruction led me to a section of the road that had been cordoned off, where a posse of cops and a police cruiser were shepherding traffic in another direction.

I wheeled around. With that, the G.P.S. went into thinking-mode, calculating, no doubt, an alternative route for me to take.

Turn left.
At the end of the road, turn right.
After 800 yards, stay on the left lane.
Turn around.

I obeyed, only to realize that I was, once again, heading toward a cul-de-sac. A couple of days prior to my royal visit, Montclair had been visited by an anomalous twister that had wreaked havoc on this upscale New York City suburb, uprooting trees, downing electric poles, and smashing car windshields. The mess had sprung several road blocks and detours.

After going in half a dozen circles, I did, at long last, emerge out onto the expressway. But even before I could heave a sigh of relief, a knot of bridges, tunnels, and toll-booths loomed before me.

A smorgasbord of overhanging green, red, and blue route-markers zoomed into focus. They showed the way to George Washington Bridge, Tappan Zee Bridge, I-95, New England, Long Island, I-87 S, Exit 8A to Saw Mill Parkway, to name just a few.

By now, the din of the traffic, together with the blitzkrieg of signs, had rendered me oblivious to the sexy cooing of the G.P.S. I paid my dues at the toll plaza, followed a queue of cars out into the many-laned George Washington Bridge, and then somehow, ended up being in the wrong line. A split second of haphazard thinking, momentary lapse of judgment, and aching calf muscles is all it took to throw me off course.

While I was dawdling, bigger and beefier cars kept cutting me off. And each failed attempt at getting back on track led to more mayhem. I was still behind the wheel, but hadn’t the foggiest clue about my bearings. So, I threw in the towel.

I was in a sea of cars. My head was throbbing. My arms were aching from the frenzied steering. I looked at my watch. It was close to 5:00 p.m., and in the two hours since I’d left Montclair, I’d covered a meager 11 miles.

I swerved to the left. I banked to the right. I honked nervously. I jumped a red light. I nearly ran into a bus. All of a sudden, I had a weird feeling of déjà vu. Puzzled, I saw my vehicle gravitating toward the George Washington Bridge—for the second time.

After all that hectic strategizing, I was back at the spot, which I’d only minutes earlier passed. Worse, I was obligated to shell out another round of toll even though that meant emptying out the last few nickels and dimes in my wallet.

By then, the Sun was setting over the Manhattan skyline. The rush of evening commuters had started. I was now in a sink-or-swim situation. I could either keep going in never-ending loops with my eyes wide shut or I could listen intently to my G.P.S., with the ardor of a lone goose trying to retrace its way back to the parent flock.

I wiped my clammy palms on my pants, and gripped the wheel like it was a runaway lover. Every now and then, I shot a glance at the chocolate-colored route display on the small screen.

I don’t recollect how long I looked at it, but by the time my gaze shifted, the dull gray of the concrete cityscape had morphed into the velveteen green of suburbia. Traffic was lighter, and moving in a more orderly manner. The road surface felt more even. The dust and the grime seemed to be have been sucked up by a giant vacuum cleaner. The air was purer. All in all, the viscous tension appeared to be melting away.

“Go straight on,” commanded my boss. When I saw that there were 27 miles of one long interstate, I was certain, I was in control again.

At this writing, I’ve driven through the Sun, the rain, the wind, and the blizzards. I’m now ready to make a cross-county road trip, Jack Kerouac-style, from New York City to San Bernardino.


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