WHILE I can tell if a tree is a Douglas fir or a cedar by the smell of its bark, and I can name a blue heron by the swish of wings overhead, I can't tell east from west unless I'm facing the Pacific's horizon at sunset. My bad sense of direction is legendary.
I've adapted to this flaw by adding a few extra minutes onto projected travel times. This allows for stops at gas stations to inquire about directions. In fact, in the closest large city, where many people don't know their neighbors' names, I am quite friendly with gas-station attendants in each quadrant of town.
Several years ago, I took my children on a trip from the Oregon coast to Vermont. I was carefully prepared with maps marked in red and green. Though my old red sedan had 120,000 miles on it, the local mechanic declared it healthy after a complete tune-up and new tires. I had emergency phone numbers in my wallet. I'd buckled one child in the front seat and one in the back.
We drove the interstate for most of the first day, from the green, moist coastline of Oregon to the drier rolling hills in the eastern part of the state. Yearning to show my children the Wallowa Mountains, I turned off the highway toward the small town of Joseph. It was just one small detour. After all, we had three weeks to head east. What possible difference could one night make?
As the car climbed the mountain road toward Wallowa Lake, my exhilaration built. We were not doing what we'd planned: We were free. As darkness curtained the lake, we built a small fire at our campsite.
The air was still and the stars were as beautiful as I imagined they might be. After my daughter, Hallie, was zipped in her sleeping bag, my son, Dylan, and I watched the fire turn to ash. When only a few hot coals were left, I deliberately put the package of marked maps at the edge of the embers. First the edges curled, then they caught a short burst of flame and settled into the ash of the evening's fire.
I felt light.
All the travel plans and deadlines had disappeared as easily as the paper in the fire. In the tent, I listened to the gentle lap of water against the dirt bank.
Fortified with morning's breakfast and a strong sense of independence, I turned the car toward town and a small highway that was to carry us into Idaho. After a few miles, the road appeared to narrow and climb. The Snake River twisted hundreds of feet below us. We wanted to stop and breathe in the dramatic view, just as we'd so recently taken in the fresh mountain air. But the road narrowed yet again. I resolved to pull over soon. About 10 miles into the drive, I suspected I'd made a wrong turn, but it w as difficult not to be distracted by the grave angles and steepness of the canyon walls.
My son said he was hungry and my daughter said she had to use the restroom. This was the first road I'd been on (and I believe the last) where in the next 10 miles there was no driveway, no shoulder wider than 18 inches, and no possible way to turn around. Between calming phrases to myself and reassurances to my children, I was mentally reviewing the map. Where would this take us? I knew I was on the wrong road, but I was certain it would connect us to a less obscure road that would eventually lead us to
the state road.
Tension, like a growing storm, built in the car. We had driven for about an hour. The odometer said we'd traveled 20 miles. It started to rain.
The end of the road came quickly. In fact, so abruptly did it stop that our front tires were on dirt while the back two still clung to the pavement. Several gentlemen fished at the base of the dam we'd just crossed. By now it was raining hard, but they didn't drop their heads, rather stared straight out at the river. I rolled down my window.
"Excuse me," I said, "this road obviously doesn't lead into Idaho."
One man turned toward our car. "Nope," he said, "you want that turn back there," and he swung his hand in the general direction of the Wallowas.
"All the way back there?"
"Yep, you can't miss it." He turned to his buddies, "Well most people can't miss it."
In the three weeks on the road, that moment was the closest I came to despair. I turned to my children. "You know that road we just came up, the one with the spectacular view, the one I bet you thought you'd never have to drive again?" My son didn't look amused. "Guess what?"
I told them we'd drive back and stop at the closest restaurant for a big lunch. My son, usually forgiving and accommodating said, "But Mom, I'm starved."
My daughter leaned over and put her head on my shoulder, "Everyone," she said, "makes mistakes."
A wrong turn can test the mettle of a relationship. It divides the people who are able to ask for help from those who are unable. It can teach a relative tolerance of one's companions. A bad sense of direction can uncover unique and beautiful spots that might, otherwise, remain elusive.
Taking a wrong turn is like writing a story and coming upon another tale in a direction you hadn't intended. Sometimes the best stories are in the unexpected. The wrong turns and the small country streets are often the routes that end up being just right.