The Evolution of the Road Trip: Smartphone Sidekick

Photo by Dominika Roseclay from Pexels

A few days ago, my partner and I started a road trip. The itinerary: from the southern tip of Miami to the northern border with Canada and back. The occasion: my 10-year college reunion in Massachusetts. But really, the reunion is just an excuse for the road trip. I don’t know about you but I love a good road trip, and this route is particularly memorable; I’ve been traveling it back and forth for many years. The landscape is dotted with dear friends to visit, and every time I make the trip, people get added or subtracted from the route; maybe someone moves away or I make a new friend who lives along the way. But one family has remained a mainstay of this route since I first started making the trip back in 2010.

Doug and Yanna live on a magical homestead in the Appalachian Mountains; they grow all their own food and drink straight from a waterfall in their backyard. Yanna is a farmer and seed saver extraordinaire; you can read more about her unparalleled sweet potato collection in The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray. Doug is an amazing naturalist, herbalist, musician and storyteller — buy his CDs and books here! Their son, Todd, is a mycologist and photographer whose latest book is Mushrooms of the Southeast.

Their home is a cathedral of handcrafted everything — wooden spoons, Yanna’s unique collection of home-thrown pottery, an array of medicinal tea, and the most impressive stash of canned goods I’ve ever seen. Last time we visited, Norbert helped them move two tree trunks which became a staircase up to their guest apartment. I usually spend my time giving Yanna a hand in the garden or with food processing projects on the porch. I always leave with seeds to try in my garden, delicious snacks for the road, and sweet memories of birdsong, box turtles, berries, and wildflowers.

Some things haven’t changed since I first started making the trip. For one thing, I’m still making the trip with my trusty 2003 Toyota Rav 4, but nowadays there’s someone with whom to share the driving: my partner, Norbert. In the early days, I traveled solo with a map as my sidekick. On this trip, we have all manner of technological devices to guide us on our journey.

We started day two of our road trip in Jacksonville, FL and made our way northward towards Doug and Yanna’s homestead in North Carolina. We were several hours away, in South Carolina, when the battery light came on. Popping open the hood, we found that the battery had some weird deposits on top but the connections seemed fine so we continued on our way. When the check engine light came on, we found an auto parts store and had the car’s computer read. As Norbert had predicted, the alternator was shot.

“How long do you think we have?” Norbert asked the clerk. “You wanna get somewhere by nightfall,” he responded. In order to save battery power, we couldn’t turn on the headlights, charge our phones, or use the A.C. We pushed onward, this time with the windows down to cool us from the midday South Carolina heat. The plan was to get to our friend’s homestead before nightfall and find a mechanic in the morning.

A few hours later, we decided to switch drivers, which meant that I was at the wheel when the gauges on the dashboard started bouncing all over the place as if possessed by erratic spirits. My trusty Rav struggled up the hill as we crossed our fingers to make it to the next exit. After cresting the hill, we coasted downhill towards an exit and turned right onto a quiet country road where the car coughed to a stop.

Of course, the sun was beginning to set and our phones were both losing battery — but thankfully, we had service. We called several local tow companies and tried to explain to them where we were located. Most of them scoffed at our request. “You’re not going to find anyone to work on your car,” a tow truck driver said to me. “It’s Memorial Day weekend. You’ll have to wait until Tuesday.”

Discouraged, we decided to leave the car where it was and find a way to our friend’s house. I laughed out loud when my partner clicked on the Uber app; we held our breath as the app looked for a driver in the area. Nope, that wasn’t going to work. Next up: taxi companies. Luckily, we caught a taxi driver before he’d opened his first beer of the holiday weekend. For a hefty price, he agreed to pick us and drive us the remaining 35 miles to Yanna and Doug’s.

A few miles from our car, he pulled over at an auto shop where the mechanic was still tinkering with some parts. Here came the biggest stroke of luck; he was happy to work on our car the following day, Saturday, as long as we located a new alternator for him to install. He’d even tow our car to his shop! Norbert handed over our car key to this stranger and we continued on our way, hoping for the best.

We chitchatted with the driver as we made our way down winding country roads. I grew increasingly nervous as we drove; he wasn’t using a GPS or the maps app on his phone — nothing. How could he possibly know where we were going? He could be taking us anywhere and we’d be none the wiser. Norbert used the last few moments of battery on his phone to check the map, but we were out of network. My hands began to sweat.

“Isn’t it that way?” I’d asked the driver when he’d first pulled out onto the road. “Nah,” he’d said. “I go the backroads.” Now I needed more assurance from our driver about the journey. “You know this area well?” I asked him. “Like the back of my hand,” he responded with a wave. When we finally turned onto a road with a sign bearing my friends’ street name on it, I breathed out and unclenched my hands.

A small miracle. Traveling without a map, from pure memory.

I’ve grown so used to having a digital device tell me exactly where I am in the world and exactly how many minutes until my destination. There’s something to be said for that intrinsic knowledge that comes from being home — on your own turf — whether that be in a bustling city like Miami or the hilly backcountry of Appalachia. Our driver didn’t need an app to find his way, even on these lonely winding roads that stretched for miles without passing a house or another car.

Would our situation have turned out very different if we hadn’t had a smartphone to find a taxi driver? Probably. We’d have had to walk a few miles to the nearest country store to borrow a phone. But also, it could be that we pushed our car to the limit knowing that we had these electronic devices to save our ass — a digital safety net that isn’t always there to get us out of a tough spot.

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