Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
~Angela N. Blount
My mom is a road warrior with whom I’ve journeyed many miles. She and Dad were snowbirds who followed sunshine and seventy-degree temperatures between Pennsylvania and Arizona. Maintaining their lifestyle required four road trips annually, and I was their driver for many of those years.
We knew the route by heart, but Mom still insisted on giving me turn-by-turn directions from their trusty Rand McNally Road Atlas while Dad read or napped in the back seat. Dad’s objective was to arrive at our destination in the fewest number of hours possible, despite Mom’s suggestion to take a scenic detour or stop at the gift shop shaped like a giant candle.
In the glove box, Mom also kept a travel log and a sharp pencil with which she’d note the car’s mileage and our precise time of departure. She’d jot down what time we passed each landmark, how long we’d stopped, the price of gas, the weather, what we ate, and our arrival time. I always attributed her attentiveness to the strong black coffee, which she’d sip continually, even after it had marinated for two days in the big Stanley Thermos. Mom’s journal served as a ready review of each motel, hotel, breakfast bar, or public restroom we’d ever patronized. And her memory, in those days, was impeccable.
“Don’t pull into that station!” she’d warn. “I remember the last time we stopped there, I saw roaches, and the door wouldn’t lock. It was 1954.”
“I don’t remember that one, Mom. I wasn’t born yet.”
“Well, why take chances?”
Mom often read aloud from notes of previous trips, as well. “Last year, we left the house at 4:07 a.m. and passed this same exit at 5:35.” Then she’d look at her watch and sigh. “It’s already 7:00.” At times, I felt like a contestant on The Great Race, one of Mom’s favorite shows.
After Dad passed away, traveling our old familiar route was like a yellow-brick road of memories, and a 1,000-mile ribbon of mourning, too. So, Mom and I began to venture on roads less traveled, stopping along the way. Only then did she allow my GPS to navigate our route, but the Rand McNally Road Atlas stayed close at hand.
When Mom downsized to one small home in the Midwest, we began to enjoy shorter adventures closer to home. Somehow, in the shuffle, the atlas went missing. But on a spontaneous weekend trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, we sure could’ve used old Rand McNally.
The reason for our weekend jaunt was two-fold: to enjoy the fall foliage and to relocate an old friend of Mom’s. We meandered through the Ouachita Mountains and over black iron bridges that carried us across gushing white streams. We strolled along Bathhouse Row, enjoyed dinner at a historic hotel, and found a cozy room overlooking Lake Hamilton.
The following afternoon, I chose a more direct route for our return trip. Forests and valleys glowed crimson and gold against a deep blue sky. Our car handled the mountainous highway without incident until I shifted into reverse after stopping at a rest area outside of the Ouachita National Forest, and the transmission hesitated. A few miles down the road, the “check engine” light came on.
I pulled onto the first wide shoulder available, activated the car’s flashers, and dialed for help on the car’s built-in emergency-service provider. A woman’s voice responded to my SOS.
“My check engine light is on,” I offered. “Feels like the transmission.”
“I can help you, ma’am. I just need to ask a few questions first.”
Mom’s eyes targeted me. “Who are you talking to, honey?”
“I’m speaking to you, ma’am,” the voice answered her. “Are you in a…”
“Who’s talking…?” Mom interrupted.
I pressed a finger to my lips while pointing to the car’s speaker, and then asked, “Could you repeat the question, please?”
“Are you in a safe spot while I run diagnostics on your vehicle?”
I glanced at the steep ledge, trying not to sound frightened. “Yes.”
“No,” Mom chimed.
“Which is it, ma’am?” the voice asked.
“We’re fine,” I conceded. While on hold, I gave Mom a layman’s tutorial on satellites and navigation systems. Within minutes, the voice returned.
“Your check engine light is on, ma’am, indicating your vehicle’s transmission may be affected.”
Seriously? Mom’s eyes rolled. “That’s what my daughter just told you!”
“Thanks,” I piped up. “Can you tell me where we are and how far to the closest garage?”
“You’re in Booneville, Arkansas.”
Booneville? We hadn’t passed any signs for Booneville, and neither my smarter-than-me phone nor my fading-in-and-out GPS showed Booneville on our route. I assumed the mountains were to blame. “Are you sure we’re in Booneville?”
Mom unbuckled her seatbelt. “Where’s that atlas?” she mumbled as she leaned toward the back seat.
“I’m sure you’re in Booneville,” the voice replied. “You’re eight miles from the closest dealership that can provide service. I can program turn-by-turn instructions over your radio, or I can transfer you to roadside service. Which would you prefer?”
A logging truck roared past, shaking our vehicle. “I think we’re safer on the road than teetering on its shoulder. I’ll drive to the dealership. Eight miles? Straight ahead on Highway 71?”
“The dealership is on Broadway Street, ma’am. Not Highway 71.”
“You said eight miles straight ahead.”
“Yes, Ma’am. You’re not on Highway 71. You’re in Booneville. I can send you directions.”
“Miss,” Mom interjected, “we most certainly are on Highway 71. Didn’t you see that truck?”
“I can’t see you, ma’am,” the voice answered.
Mom directed her gaze at me. “You told me she could see us.”
I gave Mom’s hand a gentle squeeze and further queried the voice. “Are you absolutely certain we’re in Booneville? Can you actually see our location?”
“I know where you are, ma’am. You’re in Booneville. The dealership is eight miles straight ahead on the right. Would you like me to program your turn-by-turn directions or not?”
I inferred “or not” to mean “or else,” so I didn’t press the issue. Soon, another female voice, more automated and less condescending, told us to continue our route.
Within moments, however, we passed a Highway 71 marker, confirming my suspicion. I swerved into a quick mart, veering from the pre-programmed directions, which initiated an onslaught of recalculated directions from the radio’s speakers.
“Cancel,” I instructed, while also explaining to Mom why I was stopping.
“Recalculating. Please follow directed route.”
“Recalculating. Please follow…”
“Cancel!” I repeated, irritation rising in my own voice. I knew I was listening to a computer, but apparently Mom did not.
Like a gunshot, my mother’s hand smacked the car’s dashboard, startling me. “Miss,” Mom yelled at the radio, “would you please be quiet and let my daughter drive!” Then she pointed a finger inches from my nose and scolded me with her best “mom look.”
“I told you not to get rid of that atlas!”
— Julia M. Toto —