Earlier today, I got a good dose of winter driving as I went to meet a friend for morning coffee. Big fat snowflakes fell on roads already a little slick while cars crept along below the speed limit to avoid skidding into someone else. It wasn’t all that bad, really – better than last week when it dropped 40 degrees overnight and everything iced over. Instead, this morning was beautiful as the flakes drifted down on morning commuters who, on the road I traveled, seemed to be in pretty good spirits for a Monday morning.
Perhaps that has do to with staying off the freeways on mornings like this. As someone who grew up here the Twin Cities, I have a lot of back routes tucked in my memory. When my Google calendar popped up with a suggestion that it would take me over 40 minutes to get where I needed to be, the calculation was based on the assumption I would take the Interstate. But I didn’t, and my commute was about 25 minutes. This got me thinking about how many people out there unquestioningly follow route suggestions based on algorithms designed by someone who lives in California. Or some other place far away from here.
Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate those calendar reminders that tell me it’s time to go out the door, especially on days when I’ve forgotten I have anything on my calendar. I appreciate the little map that pops up on my phone screen. What I am thinking about here is human tendencies, suggestibility, habit. I have a habit of double-checking directions I get from anyone – whether it’s my best friend or Google. I also have a habit of thinking about which route I’ll enjoy driving on the most, because I like driving. If someone suggests a route to me, there’s probably a 50-50 chance that I’ll follow it. During rush hour, I’m unlikely to go on the route most-traveled. What kind of algorithm suggests routes for people like me?
And maybe I’ve just stumbled over the reasons why I like maps. On paper. I love to look at a route, see how it moves through an area, note the curves in the road or the rivers or the forests or the mountains, and to see that all at once instead of blindly following my GPS. I like having that picture in my head when I start out, the whole journey splayed out.
Only it isn’t really the whole picture. Whether using GPS or Google or a paper map, the only way to really know a route is to travel it. To notice how the left lane disappears when taking Lexington across Grand even though the sign indicates it’s the right lane that will end. To see kids waiting for the bus on County Road B. To stop for the dog that got out of the yard near the playground, grateful that I have dog treats in my car and could help. To wait for the sanding truck that has to swing out around the car stalled at the curb. And to see the holiday lights on the coffeehouses and stores between here and my friend’s house. These slower roads I have a fondness for offer a closer look at those who live around me, at the way my city is put together, and how well this all works most of the time.
Those big fat flakes of snow are just a little bit of loveliness begging us to slow down and take it all in.
Enjoy your Monday.