In the West, if you ask for directions, they will often be given with the cardinal directions and mileage as their key features. In four years of living in Albuquerque, I never managed to become accustomed to this. I would always have to stop and process it, translate it in my head into a language I could understand. I find that, in how we conceive of getting from one place to another, we can also see where we come from. How we give and receive directions shows us the place our souls keep their roots.
It’s similar to the language in which we count to ourselves. When traveling in a polyglot place, you can always discern the home culture of a person by the language in which they tally things under their breaths, no matter how flawlessly they speak a number of other languages. How I conceive of space is organized along different lines that have nothing to do with a compass and everything to do with landmarks. I orient myself based on what is not only physically visible, but with all the ghosts of the local lore–where a thing used to be, the story attached to a particular structure, land form, or even vegetation.
I took great comfort from Kieth H. Basso’s account of the Western Appache, Wisdom Sits in Places. The accounts of the deep cultural understanding that accompanies places is inscribed in their very names. While my roots are shallower than these, something about that idea resonated with me. That we orient ourselves in the landscape based on the stories we tell, enfolded by and enfolding the landforms that often change, but remain constant fixtures in our language and our concept of how things are.
In Albuquerque, people often orient themselves based on the Sandias or the Caldera–east and west of the city respectively. This makes sense to me. It was often the only way I could figure out which direction I was moving in if I strayed off the main roads into the labyrinthine neighborhoods during my exploratory walks. But mileage means little to me in that desert town, not because it lacks intrinsic value, but simply because it does not translate into the language of my Home.
Stay Off the Highway
Don’t get me wrong, hopping onto 400 can be a quick way to get across town or down into the City (Atlanta), but more often than not, everybody and their other brother Daryl has had the same idea, at the same time. What’s more, they’re all in a hurry and don’t care about anyone else on the road. Do yourself a favor and learn the back roads, surface streets, and “short cuts”–these are often not shorter in terms of distance, but can actually be a quicker route to your destination. These are also more pleasant, usually.
Taking the back way has largely fallen out of fashion, here. It belongs to an another, older generation of Southern thought, as do many of my sensibilities and turns of phrase. In a way, it’s the Deep South Zen–enjoy the ride, look at houses and landscaping, have a conversation, and you’ll arrive at your destination in due time without the black beast of road stress riding on your back. When we say things like, “You can’t hardly get there from here.” It’s another way of saying that there’s no quick or direct route, and you should plan your travel time accordingly. This can be applied to country destinations. But it’s also equally applicable to places in the heart of Atlanta, buried in a maze of one-way streets, allies, or roads where you’re taking your life into your own hands if you want to turn left.
Surface streets here tend to follow natural land forms, like rivers or bluffs. Alternatively, they meander around farm fields, even when those fields have ceased to be. This leads to a characteristic twisting two-lane, hemmed in by trees in the less developed areas–one of my favorite aspects of the pattern language of Home, and a feature I’m always sad to see destroyed by suburban sprawl. However, because roads were often built in stages, stopping and starting as the area became more developed, you also have road name changes. It’s still the same, now-unbroken thread of asphalt, but it has twelve different names in a twenty mile stretch. Shallowford Rd. becomes Pinegrove Rd. for all of about a mile and a half before it changes again to Magnolia St. for five hundred feet before it runs into Alpharetta Hwy. in Historic Roswell. Alpharetta Hwy. is also known as Hwy. 9, Roswell Rd., and farther north, the Atlanta Hwy (because once, it was the road that took you in the general direction of Atlanta.)
The Logic of Landmarks
Once you understand the disturbingly impermanent nature of road names, many of which often have no signs or signs which are now conveniently placed in a bush where no one can see them, you get why people don’t tell you which road to take, but what you should be seeing along the way. We give directions based on clearly visible landmarks, like The Big Chicken in Marietta, which is quite terrifyingly visible above the concrete stain that is much of the 120 Loop. The Marietta Square, the River, the Mill, and Canton Street in Roswell are also landmarks. Churches tend to be gargantuan in this part of the country–because well, just go with it. That’s another subject all on its own.
This post has gone on quite long enough. There’s more, but, like the ostentatious appearance of churches, it’ll keep for now.