August 13th, 2020

The Village Idiot

One bad turn deserves another

Jim Mullen

By Jim Mullen

Published May 19, 2015

My plane is leaving in 20 minutes, and I'm still on the freeway, 20 miles outside of town. Even if there's no traffic, even if I get off at the right exit, even if I make every light, I will still have to return the rental car, check my luggage, get through security and then run through the terminal like a madman.

What's the point? I'll just slow down, catch the next flight, and admit that I have been defeated once again by road signs.

I should have known this would happen. I forgot to pack my cellphone charger and have had to live without constant GPS info for two and a half days. When I arrived, the rental car people gave me a local map and a card with directions on how to get out of the airport. A map? Is that how people lived in the olden days?

"At the airport exit, go north two blocks to Exit 6." At the airport exit, there is no sign that says "North" or "Exit 6." A quick glance at the map: My final destination is not on it.

It's getting dark. I am in a car I have never driven before, in a town I have never been to before. What could possibly go wrong?

The guy behind me starts to honk. I try to honk back, but can't find the horn. I angrily double-swish the front windshield wipers at him. That ought to shut him up.

After a few wrong turns, I finally end up on the eight-lane highway that will whisk me out of town to a vacation paradise an hour away. I call my host on the cellphone and tell him I was headed west as fast as I could, and should be there in an hour.

"How long have you been going west?"

"Oh, about half an hour."

"Good, that's not too bad. Now take the next exit and get off. You should be going east. We're on the east side of town. We'll hold dinner for you."

What is wrong with my mental map? How did I get so twisted around? A half-hour later, my host calls to find out how I'm doing.

"Where are you?" he asks.

"I just passed a Home Depot and an Olive Garden. Wait a minute, there's a Pizza Hut and a Wendy's coming up. Does that ring a bell with you? Am I getting close?" Apparently even these distinctive landmarks couldn't tell him which direction I was going, as the same four stores seemed to be at every other intersection.

I don't expect road signs to say things like "Bob's House" or "Stephanie's Wedding Reception" or "That Little Place You Liked So Much the Last Time You Were Here," but then, "Exit 9, West Moletown" really doesn't help much if you're not from West Moletown. Can't there be some sort of happy medium? After all, signs are for people who don't know where they're going, not for people who do. Going 65 mph on a busy freeway is not the time to be looking at a map. It's not where I want to have to make split-second decisions.

Even when they get the signs right, the local highway departments seem to have unique ways of placing them. In the town I was visiting, the words "Next Right" seem to mean "Previous Right," "Next Exit" means "Previous Exit" and "Left Lane Ends" means "Have a Pleasant Near-Death Experience."

"Men Working" pretty much meant what it does everywhere -- "Long, Random Delays for No Visible Reason." "Detour" means "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here."

Now, on the reverse trip, I knew I would have the same trouble all over again. So I left an hour early. I failed to make one correct turn, failed to take one correct exit, I overshot the entrance to the airport and had to make a U-turn on a six-lane highway.

But I did make the flight. The flight crew was delayed. Seems they got lost getting to the airport.

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Jim Mullen is the author of "It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life" and "Baby's First Tattoo."