Exit 138. Only seven miles.

I’m a little behind on posting here, because I was away for a few days for the holidays, and because plans keep changing.  I’ll catch up eventually.

I grew up in Salinas, in the Central Coast region of California, just inland from Monterey and about 100 miles south of San Francisco.  As I have said before, I have had a fascination with maps and roads for as long as I can remember.  Sometimes I would look at maps, see a road that goes off the map, and develop a fascination and curiosity for where that road went.  By the way, for my younger readers, when I say “maps,” I’m not talking about an app on your phone.  I’m talking about a big piece of paper with pictures of roads and cities and landmarks.  And there often didn’t exist readily available maps of areas outside of big cities, so if these roads went off the map into a remote rural area, I couldn’t just scroll up, I really didn’t have a way to find out where all roads went.

There is a road in Salinas called San Juan Grade Road.  It splits from Main Street in a major shopping area at the north end of town and leads into a rural agricultural area.  On the map I had as a kid, where the road reached the edge of the map, it was labeled “To San Juan Bautista.”  Once when I was around 9 or 10 years old, I asked my parents where San Juan Grade Road led, and how you would get to San Juan Bautista that way.  This is not the route I knew leading to San Juan Bautista; the route I knew, the route most people take, is to go north on 101, the main highway, and eventually turn onto another highway which leads into San Juan Bautista a few more miles to the east.  San Juan Bautista is a small town that is the site of one of the 18th century Spanish missions that every California kid writes a report on when they are around the age I was when this story takes place.

My dad suggested that we take a drive, to show me that road.  I said sure.  So we drove out to San Juan Grade Road.  A few miles north of Salinas proper, the road began climbing a hill, and it became narrow, barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other.  The pavement was bumpy, and the route had many tight curves.  It was a beautiful drive, through remote hills dotted with clumps of trees, but it was a difficult and slow drive.  After what felt like hours of winding through hills, the road finally widened to the width of a normal two lane road, and a few miles later, we entered San Juan Bautista.  We drove home the normal way, on 101.

Yesterday, on my way home from my parents’ house, I wanted to be adventurous and go for a scenic drive, to do something more interesting than take my usual route, but I also did not want to go too far out of the way.  So I took San Juan Grade Road.  I had not been that way since that drive with my family some thirty years ago or so.  I did not remember many of the details regarding the scenery itself (the details I provided in the previous paragraph were mostly based on what I saw yesterday).  But what I found most interesting was something that I clearly remembered incorrectly, about the road being narrow with many sharp curves and going on for hours.

The narrow windy part of the drive was only seven miles.

Obviously, thirty years can erode memories, and an unfamiliar trip often tends to feel longer than it actually is.  But the difficult part of the trip was only seven miles.  That isn’t far at all.  I can easily bike seven miles in half an hour, and there was even a time when I could run seven miles without stopping (although I’m comparing this to flat distances, I probably couldn’t do either of these on a steep route like San Juan Grade Road).

When going through a difficult stretch in life, sometimes it feels like the difficult times will last forever.  But someday, we all get through our difficult times, and sometimes, when we look back, we discover that things weren’t really as difficult as they seemed when we were going through it.  What feels like an endless rough trip might only be a little seven mile scenic drive.

Exit 51. There is so much to miss when you don’t pay attention to your surroundings.

I was recently walking around the campus of UC Davis when I noticed something interesting: the campus buildings have street addresses now.  I’m pretty sure this is a recent change; I’m the kind of guy who would notice something like this, after all.  When I started at UC Davis as a freshman, in 1994, the streets on campus had names, but the mailing addresses for buildings didn’t contain the street names.  Mail was just addressed to the room number, building number, and “UC Davis,” followed by the standard “Davis, CA 95616” on the last line.  During the time I was there, the Postal Service apparently told the school that this was not an appropriate form for addresses, so all buildings on campus were given the mailing address “1 Shields Ave.” to go along with the room and building number.  (Shields Avenue is one of the streets in the central part of campus, named after a judge who was influential in choosing Davis as the site of the University of California Farm, which eventually grew and became UC Davis.)  As far as I can tell, the addition of street addresses to the buildings has not changed most of the mailing addresses; academic departments still have 1 Shields Ave. as their mailing address.  Residential buildings (i.e., dormitories and on-campus apartments), however, use the new form of the street addresses.

I’m not sure why this change has been made, but I have a guess.  Perhaps the buildings have been given addresses so that GPSs and online map services can give better directions to and from the buildings.  And it makes me sad that this is even necessary.  It seems like no one has a sense of direction anymore, no one knows how to read a map anymore, and no one pays attention to their surroundings anymore.

I’ve always been fascinated by maps and roads and things of that nature.  I didn’t realize until I was an adult that some people don’t read maps and don’t pay attention to street signs.  Of course, a lot of this is just the result of different people having different learning and thinking styles.  I took an education class in which this was used as an example of how there are different types of learners.  Some people find their way better using maps, some prefer written directions with where to turn left or right, some prefer to look for landmarks, and some prefer to wing it.  But it seems more and more common these days to just blindly follow what one’s GPS tells them, without thinking about whether or not the directions feel right.

In 2006ish, I was carpooling with some people I used to know to go miniature golfing.  I had been there before (although only once or twice), and I was pretty sure I remembered how to get there, but the driver of the car, who had not been there before, had just gotten a GPS and didn’t care that I knew how to get there, because her GPS was going to give her directions.  I said something on the way about where we were going, and she got really upset with me, about how I was being a jerk and all this mean stuff that I had no idea where it came from.  As we took our exit, the miniature golf place was visible on the opposite side of the freeway.  But somehow, the driver couldn’t figure out where to go, and whatever her GPS was saying wasn’t making sense to her.  She pulled over at a gas station to ask for directions.  Remember, the miniature golf place was in plain sight from where we had just exited, so it was pretty obvious to any rational human being which way to turn.  She had told me earlier that she didn’t want me to talk, so I didn’t say anything.  As soon as the car stopped in the gas station parking lot, I got out and walked the rest of the way.  And I beat them there by 10 minutes.  I tried apologizing to the driver of my car later, but she told me she didn’t want to hear it, and she never spoke to me again.

Now I’m pretty sure that’s an extreme case.  GPSs don’t turn everyone into assholes.  But there is so much to miss when you don’t pay attention to your surroundings.  So many people know so little about the area in which they live, and so many people are content to go through life without thinking, even laughing proudly about having no sense of direction.  Now I’m not claiming some kind of sense of superiority over people with no sense of direction; not everyone’s brain works like mine.  And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the buildings at UC Davis having street addresses.  For that matter, my theory might not even be correct in the first place; I just tried typing some of those street addresses into Google Maps, and they didn’t all work.  Maybe they’re still working out the kinks.  But anyway, having a sense of direction these days is just another way that I don’t understand others, and they don’t understand me.  And I think the world would be a better place if we paid more attention to little things like that.