The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Rural Directions

Friends, meet Staci “Mrs. Matt” Gower. Readers of the Gettysburg Times may remember her as Staci George, an energetic police and fire reporter who eagerly responded to blazing infernos, kept her fingers on a plethora of social events, and once returned to the office with a tip that led to a Public Service award for the paper.

Staci is a detail-oriented young woman who, responding to my request for information to feed the GPS, led us thusly to a diner for the post-rehearsal repast, last weekend:

“When leaving the church, go down the road toward the beer distributor on the left (you’ll see on your way to church). At first stop sign, don’t make hard right but make the slight right, (then) right on 209, go down the hill (pass motorcycle race thing on left, Wild Rose Dance Club on left, Frank’s Pizza on right, Sunoco on right, fire house on left, bank/post office/doctor office on left, traffic right, deli on left) and then Cherry’s is on the left.”

“This is rural town,” she wrote. “We apparently don’t have GPS addresses; just landmarks.”

Many of us Old Timers are familiar with those pre-GPS directions, marked by lightning-struck trees, old houses and gas stations rather than a bent white arrow on a tiny digital screen..

The story is told, where I once lived, of a fellow who pulled up in a nicely polished car with out-of-state plates, and stopped in front of Cecil Carsley’s general store and hotel. Rolling down the driver-side window, he asked Cecil, “Does this road go to New Portland?”

Cecil stopped rocking.

“No sir,” he said. “This road ain’t moved since they put it down in ’48.”

He then explained that if the driver were to get back on the road, and turn right when he saw the sign for the Wire Bridge, he would soon find himself in New Portland. The Wire Bridge sign was only a few miles from the store.

I once had to explain to a young man how to get from his dad’s home to the Skowhegan Fair.

“At the bottom of your driveway, turn right,” I said. “When you get to a Stop sign, turn right again. At the green bridge, turn left. Next Stop sign, turn right, and when you get to where people have signs on their lawns offering parking for $5, you’re there.”

That first Stop sign was 15 miles down the road. If you hadn’t seen it and you still were dry, you hadn’t got there yet. If you didn’t stop for it, you’d be in the river.

GPS is great for showing us the turn-by-turn instructions for getting someplace, as long as there is no construction or road-blocking wreckage. Seeing the roadside sights? Not so much.

The nice thing about rural direction-giving is you get to look out the vehicle’s front window to find the landmarks. GPS demands you pay attention to that little screen. You never know where you are, but if you look away from the screen at the wrong time, you can miss an important turn.

Coming home from the wedding, I’d forgotten to fill the gas tank. There we were cruising down the I-476 toll road, and I saw the sign for gas at the service plaza. What I didn’t notice as I watched traffic, and passed fields, houses and other vehicles, was the GPS telling me I should take the exit for I-78.

On the other hand, there was shortly thereafter a large sign directing us to a Sunoco station, about which Garmin made no mention.

Which is one reason looking out the front window, instead of at a GPS screen, can be a good thing.


  1. You said it! People keep telling me to get GPS. I prefer paper maps.

    Last year I was with two friends going to another friend’s house. The driver had GPS, I had MapQuest directions. The other friend had Googlemaps. All three directions were different. The GPS was the worst. It took us on a scenic drive through a neighborhood. All we needed to do was stay on the main road for a couple more blocks, turn right and park.

  2. My wife and I regularly find different directions, and I am often surprised that my GPS will take me one way to a place, and a completely different way home. My nose, however, has proven generally capable of finding my destination, and if I make a wrong turn … please see my earlier column about wandering.

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