It Can Feel Like a Space Pod

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Foolishly, I now realize, I thought that noontime on Sunday would be a low-traffic period and the best time to head north from Nahant, Mass., toward home in Vermont. And so it was, all the way along the one-mile, four-lane causeway that leads from the town to the mainland. As I reached the rotary at the mainland end, the pleasant, soft-voiced young lady in my dashboard instructed me to take the first exit to the right onto Lynn Shore Drive. That was easy enough. But suddenly my car and I were assaulted on all sides by dozens of darting, dashing, shouldering, crowding, beeping vehicles driven by frustrated stock car drivers, all of whom clearly knew where they were going and just as clearly couldn’t care less about my delicate condition. It was like stumbling across a ground hornet nest.

It was then that I recalled a bit of advice my late wife once gave me about Boston-area traffic. She was in the kitchen business, and often rented vans from Rent-A-Wreck to run down there to pick up appliances. If she found herself in a trafficular pickle, she sometimes stopped dead and held her hands to the sides of her head: a little old lady with nothing to lose. It never failed.

I wasn’t in quite that bad a jam – I had my sweetheart (I’ll call her Monica. I’d already learned the hard way that if I called her Sarah, Siri would pipe up asking whom I wanted to call, and wouldn’t take “Aargh!” for an answer) in the dash still calmly advising me – so I slowed to a lumbering crawl and did my best to ignore the cacophony around me. My car is sort of the offensive tackle of the automotive world, so they gave me some room. I could see that, though Monica was no doubt leading me by the best route through the urbs of Lynn, the best attitude to adopt was a Zenlike calm. Individuality had to give way to conformity.

One problem with the current state of GPS navigation is that you often have no idea where you are. In the days of maps – which I sort of miss – you could see where you were in relation to places you knew. Now you’re a little blip on what looks like a blue blood vessel, bending back and forth in response to the curves of the road you’re on. I often pretend I’m the Maine fisherman lost in the fog who found the page he needed in his “Maine Pilot” missing. He just kept on sailing till he got to the next page. It worked. In about half an hour, having barely dodged a huge mistake at a hectic interchange, I was safely on I-93 north headed toward Concord.

“Safely” is perhaps not quite the right word. Compared to the cars I used to drive, my present vehicle is about as safe as it can be. It uses radar to slow me down or even stop me if I’m catching up to another car too fast. It beeps and nudges me back into what it perceives to be the proper lane if it senses me straying. It keeps its interior at just the temperature I choose. It tells me if there are traffic problems ahead, warns me if it feels the road may be slippery, and even now and then will flag a “Speed Check” ahead. That’s code, apparently, for a radar speed trap. It advises me how best to stretch my gas mileage (it’s a hybrid), and predicts my probable time of arrival at my destination. With the windows closed, it can feel almost like a space pod. Very comforting.

I recently got a letter from an old friend who expressed concern that her granddaughter was facing her first year with a driver’s license in a rapidly metastasizing city full of high-speed drivers. I sympathize, of course; but what about an old fart only a few weeks shy of 87, hurtling along in a column of weaving, impatient automobiles and trucks for whom the posted speed limit is but a laughable fiction? The ambient speed of the crowd lay between 78 and 88. If I lagged, I had a rear-view mirror full of somebody’s grille; if I kept up, sooner or later I had to pass. I suppose that for some folks this 3-D exercise is stimulating – perhaps even fun. I remember that once upon a time, it was for me. Now, like a rabbit in a hailstorm, I simply yearned to get out of the hassle.

“Take the next exit and merge onto I-89 north,” advised Monica. “Avec plaisir!” I shouted. “I beg your pardon.” she asked. “Never mind. Thank you.” The sense of calm and sanity returning to my surroundings was palpable. Only a few minutes ahead was a pit stop where I could get a cup of black coffee and an apple fritter. After that, Monica predicted an arrival time of 3:04 p.m. I sighed, set the cruise control, and sipped my coffee. All was well with the world again.