On the Road

Shoulda made that left turn in Albuquerque

May 13, 2012

A few weeks ago, when that hapless driver with the load of ammunition made a wrong turn into Mexico, I spent more time than I should have wondering how one could make a wrong turn across an international border.

It's amazing what you find when you get far enough off the beaten path.



You'd think with all the signs and inspection lanes and barbed wire and everything else, he'd have been aware something was amiss. Unfortunately, I'm not one to talk. I made plenty of wrong turns back when I was still living by the gospel according to Messrs Rand and McNally.

In fact, my CB handle in those days was "Wrongway." Not terribly original, I admit, but appropriate. I couldn't follow directions out of a one-horse town.

My problem, more often than not, was the result of that singularly male phenomenon which prevents otherwise rational men from asking directions. Or worse, asking directions, but then not clarifying the confusing points, "Was that left at the third light or the third left after the light?" Some of my blunders are now probably the stuff of urban legend.

Back in 1982, long before all this foolish airport security stuff got started, I caused the temporary closure of an active runway at the Tampa Airport by wandering into a parking area while the facility was under construction. There was no way out except to back against a considerable volume of traffic, or to cross the tarmac and exit via a service entrance on the opposite side of the field. The grounds supervisor told me I wasn't the first and probably wouldn't be the last, but I have to admit, it was pretty neat driving around with all those police cruisers surrounding the truck.

Another time, a particularly forgettable trip to the Bronx, I was escorted along the Bronx River Parkway (a no-truck route) by two of that borough's finest policewomen. Some comedian had spray-painted all the street signs in the neighborhood, rendering even the best directions completely useless. Lost in a residential part of town, these two gals figured I couldn't get into any more trouble out on the parkway than I was already in where I was. So, lights-a-flashin', they escorted me back to the Cross Bronx Expressway.

If getting lost is a problem, getting found isn't always a blessing. During the late 1980s I spent several years hauling calcium cyanide in dry-bulk tanks to many of the gold mines operating in Nevada at the time. As you might imagine, those mines aren't located in an industrial park adjacent to an interstate. In fact, the only way into some of these places would qualify as big-league off-roading even for a Jeep, never mind a tractor-trailer.

Once, while preparing to unload at one particular mine, I got a call re-routing me to another mine that was about to run out of material. I didn't get lost on the way, but to save about 400 miles of highway travel to the other mine, I was instructed to travel "cross-country" from Tuscarora, northwest of Elko, to Lone, which is somewhere north east of Hawthorne.

I wound up traveling through several genuine ghost towns. Shortly after that, I found myself on the side of a mountain that was once a prehistoric Native American settlement, complete with petroglyphs and ancient dwellings. I've always maintained a "make the best of it" kind of philosophy, so what else was there to do but explore? The site was something straight out of National Geographic, but better still, there wasn't a tour guide within 200 miles of the place.

If you add them all up, there have been dozens of times I was technically lost, several times almost beyond redemption. But thanks to my dysfunctional sense of direction, and that damned guy thing about asking for help, I've stumbled into some pretty memorable places: Mt. Rushmore, for example. The Columbia Ice Fields, the cave in Hannibal, Mo., where Mark Twain crafted his classic tale Tom Sawyer, and a certain plantation somewhere in eastern Georgia whose owner invited me to stay the night, then in the morning prayed for a safe arrival at my final destination.

Trucking was different then. If you showed up late, you got chewed out and that was the end of it. Today, they make you fill out reports, give you time off, and in the case of that fellow in Mexico, you wind up in prison.

I can't say that all those off-route miles did anything positive for my bottom line, but the tales that accrued from my misadventures will serve me well on those cold winter nights still to come with grandkids curled up in my lap.

I managed to arouse my daughter's curiosity about the world by telling her stories -- my detour to the meteor crater in Arizona, for example, and the morning I woke up in the middle of Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. She still laughs about the time when, on a crystal clear and bitterly cold Manitoba winter night, a pair of wolves cornered me on top of my tanker.

Money in the bank can't hold a candle to a good story, and buddy, if my years in the saddle have provided anything for the future; it's those many tall tales still to be told.

Today, when I ask directions, I write everything down. And when somebody asks me for directions, I usually tell them to get lost.