Friday, August 30, 2013

Getting Lost While on the Road - An Opportunity to See New Places or Just a Hassle?

I will never understand why some people make such a big fuss when they get lost on the road. I mean, I understand getting lost on your way to work or to an important appointment isn't an option but when you're on a road trip and you have a window of time available to do as you please and the open road in front of you, why wouldn't you want to go off course and see things you otherwise would never get to see? Some of my best travel memories started with a wrong turn, misguided directions, a malfunctioning GPS, a map read upside down in the dark or my innate sense of curiosity getting the better of me so my car instinctively veers off into unknown territory waiting to be explored.

I rarely read maps. They're too much of a hassle, they take up space in my car, its too much work to fold and unfold them and most times, it is either too dark to read a map or I don't feel like pulling over to read the small print of a map that is probably not even updated anyway. I do have a GPS. It's a nifty little tool for when I have to find a specific place in a hurry. I have tried to use it on road trips to disastrous proportions that had me more lost than I was before I turned it on.

If I have time to kill, sometimes I "forget" my GPS at home and set out in search of a specific destination and get lost in the process. This is all part of the adventure, right? Like the time I wanted to find Cape Clear in the Cape Breton Highlands. The road system up there is confusing at best, with wood roads going off into every direction with more roads going off those roads that turn into ATV trails or foot paths. There are no signs and everything looks the same; trees, trees and more trees...until I finally found Cape Clear and one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen!

I like to drink coffee but, for some strange reason, I can only enjoy it if I'm in a moving vehicle. So in order to avoid that withdrawal headache that comes in the mid-afternoon if I don't get my fix, I have to jump in the car, fill up a thermos of some home-brewed coffee or hit up a local coffee shop. I can't bring the coffee home to drink and I can't just sit in the coffee shop or park the car and drink it; it just doesn't taste the same unless the car is moving and I am going somewhere. Sometimes I drive around town a few times or to a nearby town and just go home once my cup is empty. More times than not, I pick a street I have never been on before and drive until I can't drive anymore. I wouldn't know about some of the beautiful beaches, parks, rest areas and scenic places to watch a sunset or moonrise if it had not been for this innate curiosity I have to explore the unknown.

My map and GPS-free travels have taken me to many memorable places I would never have known existed if I had followed strict paths to my intended destinations. I'd heard there was a monastery in Cape Breton but no one ever seemed to know where it was whenever I asked. I was driving through Pleasant Bay along the Cabot Trail one summer afternoon when I decided to turn onto a road I'd never been down before. When the pavement ended, I thought about turning around but, as it always does, curiosity got the better of me and I kept driving along that road that wrapped around the rocky coast of Northern Cape Breton until...I happened upon the monastery I had heard about. Gambo Abbey, tucked away in a remote corner of the island I thought I knew like the back of my hand!

I was both excited and nervous at the prospect of driving in a large city in the United States for the first time. I picked up my rental car at McCarron International Airport in Las Vegas early on a Thursday morning with intentions of driving around aimlessly in the desert for three days, happening upon whatever came my way. A GPS did come with the car and I thought it might be a good idea to use it to at least get myself out of the city limits but I first had to return to The Luxur Hotel where I was staying to pick up my supplies for the weekend. The GPS already had an entry for "LAX" which was the name of the hotel bar at The Luxor. With the GPS set for "LAX", I set out into the morning rush hour traffic. It was only after my GPS took me onto a 16-lane highway heading west that I remembered the Los Angeles International Airport also went by the name LAX. After dodging lightning speed traffic and frightening lane changes that almost had me killed on the I-95, I did make it, in one piece back to my hotel and, again, set my GPS to take me outside the city limits. The nifty little gadget did its thing and soon I was cruising through The Mojave with nothing but wide open spaces for miles around me. Since I didn't want to get too lost out there in that unforgiving and sometimes dangerous landscape, I availed of the setting that would only take me on paved main roads. This is where the nifty little gadget epically failed. And where do you think I ended up with nightfall only a mere few hours away? After letting the GPS guide me down a few dozen paved roads that seemed like they would lead somewhere, the pavement ended and turned into a gravel road in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Now, if you have ever been out in that desert at sunset, you know the feeling that comes over you when you realize that soon, that sun will go down and darkness will come and you may not see another car for hours or days and there isn't a single house or streetlight anywhere for miles in some places. This was one of those places. And there are snakes, poisonous ones...and scorpions, serial killers and the odd UFO abduction. So what did I do? I took that GPS and tossed in the backseat and enjoyed the moment I found myself in. I will never forget that experience for as long as I live. There is not a sound out there in that vast, open space, barely a breath of wind and when the sun sets, its like the whole desert is on fire. At the time, I knew it would be a moment in my life that I would talk about and remember for many years to come!
I did find my way out of that maze of gravel roads and over the next few days, I found more off-the-beaten-track places that I would have missed if I'd used the GPS to take me straight to my final destination of Death Valley National Park. The Valley of Fire, Area 51, The Extraterrestrial Highway (where much of the UFO activity over the United States is reported) and a stretch of deserted two-lane highway surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges that led to the California state line.

When I approached Las Vegas a couple of days later on Saturday night, I reached for the GPS and set it to take me on a route that would have me skip driving down The Strip and take me straight to my hotel...and that nifty little gadget failed miserably once again. I followed the directions and ended up guess where? At the opposite end of The Strip on a Saturday night. I don't think I need to explain to you what Las Vegas Boulevard, AKA The Strip, the biggest party street in the world is like on a hot, Saturday night...I'm sure you get the idea. My hotel was at the complete other end and once I was locked into that chaotic gridlock, I had no choice but to continue down that entire strip of flashing neon lights, drunken pedestrians coming out of everywhere, climbing on roofs of cars, taxi drivers trying to push their way to their next paying customer while trying to figure out what lane I should be in to avoid making yet another wrong turn into the unknown. But you know what, when it was all said and done and I made it back to my hotel, kissed the ground and thanked my lucky stars that my unwanted detour down the Vegas Strip on a Saturday night didn't result in me or anyone else getting killed, I gave myself a little pat on the back; now I can say I drove down one of the most famous streets in the world. I wasn't a passenger in a stretch limo or taxi cab. I drove it myself and it was very interesting to say the least.

Over the years, I've had many mapless/GPSless adventures that took me to some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. While driving through the Rocky Mountains of Banff National Park, I turned onto an interesting-looking road just outside of Canmore and discovered the beauty that is Kananaskis Country.

A trip to The Magdelan Islands in Quebec saw me venturing onto a country road lined with sand dunes that, upon walking over, revealed a beautiful stretch of sandy beach that went for miles.
In the days pre-911, when crossing into the United States from Canada didn't even require a passport, a last-minute decision to take the "scenic" route home from Montreal led me on a misguided but eventful journey through Upstate New York and Vermont at a time of year when the fall foliage was at its most colorful. A random drive up a gravel road in Framboise, Cape Breton led me to a abandoned Victorian-era house with the front door wide open. Looters had already ransacked the place years before but there were still some interesting things laying around like some newspapers from the 1930's and furniture and clothing that had been left there by the previous owners who, it seems, must have left in a hurry. On a trip to the Southern Shore of Nova Scotia, I made a wrong turn while trying to find the town of Lunenburg and accidentally ended up at Oak Island, also known as The Money Pit, the island made famous by repeated attempts to extract pirate treasure that is said to have been buried there by Captain Kidd.

Not all of my wrong turns were made in a car. One of the most beautiful beaches I had ever laid eyes on was found quite by accident after I jumped onto a public bus in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico and went in search of some Mayan Ruins to explore. I exited the bus just outside Tulum, found some ruins, explored them and than did what I usually do when I find myself in a new place. I found a road that looked interesting and walked down it until it came to an end...and revealed the beautiful Playa Santa Fe. Completely surrounded by giant sand dunes, completely covered in soft, white sand and completely deserted. Another slice of paradise found...quite by accident!


Suzy said...

I completely agree. Sometimes you just need to ditch the map and get lost. I always find the most memorable experiences when I am not looking for them.

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