I Could Never Get Home from There

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Seven of us were seated comfortably around a couple of blankets in an apple-peach orchard, chewing on cheese-tomato-mayo sandwiches. Steve, right beside me, hacked heartily at the brown crusts of sourdough and olive loaf. Both the bread and the cheeses were gourmet quality – there was a gorgonzola-brie that was particularly toothsome – the conversation no less; and Gabe, the youngster among us, has kept Stella, a curly-haired terrier, busy by tossing windfall apples that she trotted back with and laid carefully in a row.

It was a scene worthy of Renoir. Nothing could have been more peaceful and pleasant. But suddenly it occurred to me that I had no idea where I was, how I could ever get home from there without the support of the people around me, and that we were probably going to have to negotiate the bowels of Boston after dark to get back to where my faithful Hagar (a RAV4 hybrid with Vermont plates) awaited me on the far side. I tried not to communicate the anxiety this was causing.

On the rare occasions I’ve had to go through Boston, I tried to do it during a non-rush hour, or against the flow of vacation-bound traffic. Interstate 93, much improved in the past few years, does a great job of getting the transient through the thick of the downtown muddle and out the other side. It’s reminiscent of the description of the Navy – designed by geniuses for operation by idiots. The genius is apparent in the approach to Logan Airport, the beautiful new Bunker Hill Bridge over the Charles, the Ted Williams Tunnel, and the large green street signs. The idiots are there, too – along with the geniuses, frightened old people, produce trucks, and guys in zippy little Hondas channeling Stirling Moss or Michael Schumacher. They’re all going like hell (except the frightened old people), and they all know where they’re going. I’m usually hanging on by my fingernails, desperately looking for a sign warning me which lane to try to get into.

I will give them this: They’re all interested in getting somewhere as fast as possible, and appear to know that even a minor fender-bender in heavy traffic can gum up the whole works till the scene is cleared. Thus there’s less bullying than I remember from the old days, and more adroit jockeying. If I were a cop watching the passing scene, I’d be praying fervently for their safety.

The good news about having to get home from that picnic in terra incognita was that I’d be doing it in the back seat of somebody else’s car. We were stopping for supper with friends along the way. I’d assiduously watched the GPS screen that had led us to the orchard, but that tells you only that you’re a tiny arrow following a curving blue line, and not at all where you are. When the woman behind the screen finally said, “You have arrived at your destination,” I asked timidly, “Where are we?” The answer from my friend beside me didn’t help much: “Cambridge.” Uh-huh.

But by immense good fortune, my friend beside me, who’d be taking me back to Hagar, was a Harvard graduate, and didn’t need the GPS to navigate the still-busy, after-supper dark streets to her home off the beaten track north of Boston. Her car’s too tiny to zoom, but we bopped along at a good rate as she pointed out the Harvard Coop, the university, the stadium, the road to the boathouse. Slowly it all faded behind us and I was conscious only of vague lights, billboards, stoplights, and a sense of the ocean off to our right, It had been a very long day.

Next morning I loaded my duffel into Hagar, settled myself into my seat, started the engine, and plugged my cell phone into Hagar’s navigation display. “Where do you want to go?” she asked (I wish I could give her a Norwegian accent).

“Home,” I answered. She gave me a travel time of 3:18 and, when I pressed “Go,” told me to get moving. Which I did. “Actually,” I said, “if you can just get me through the mess of Lynn and to the entrance ramp for I-93 North, I’ll know where I am again, and you can take the rest of the day off.” She’s a game gal, though, and no quitter. She stayed with me right through “Con-CORD” and “Leba-NON” and never piped down at all till finally she announced, “Your destination is on the right.” I was no longer an arrow on a line! I was home! What a pleasure to know where I was!