Stopping and asking for directions used to be the most reliable way to find your way around. A local person would not only know the way, but also the traffic patterns, the most interesting places to visit, and the best burger served within a twenty-mile radius. Asking for directions was never about getting from point A to point B. It was an opportunity to connect with another person, in the moment when you needed them most.
In the past twenty years, technology has offered us alternatives to direction-asking. It started with printouts of online driving-directions, then navigation devices, and eventually smartphones with mobile apps that offer turn-by-turn navigation, hotel reviews, and real-time traffic data. Today, in the year 2014, stopping to ask another person for directions has virtually become unnecessary. The ultimate directions are now always in your pocket, as long as you have enough battery life and a mobile data connection.
When I was on the road, riding my motorcycle across the country, I used mobile applications to navigate, to find the best places to spend the night, and to calculate the number of miles left in my tank. Yet somehow, I still found myself stopping to ask for directions every day. Sometimes I received the inside scoop (“here’s what you want to do”) and sometimes I discovered a town’s untold story, secret celebrity, or a famous scandal. The destination was always an experience, never a set of map coordinates.
In the four years that have passed since I went back, I did not have much of a chance to ask for directions. Most of my travel is for business, and done in a rental car. And while folks are nice to a biker who is roaming aimlessly, they can get suspicious when a mid-age, buttoned-down man claims to be lost. Then yesterday, driving down from Boston to New York, I took a few wrong turns and completely lost my way. My phone battery was dead, and the rental car I was using did not have a navigation system. So I had to stop and ask for help.
I drove into a small town in Massachusetts, parked the car and spotted an old man coming out of a McDonald’s. I approached him and asked if he knows the best way to drive down towards New York. At first he was a little wary, but when I explained that I have no technology to help me, his face relaxed and he started enumerating the alternatives for the rest of my trip. Just like in the old days, he warned me of the exit that can be easily missed, mentioned a long stretch of road with no gas stations, and suggested a few places to grab lunch. We continued to chat about the rain, speculating whether it would soon stop, then said goodbye, and I went on my way.
Four hours (and one delicious lunch) later, I arrived safely to my hotel. Even though it rained the entire time, and even though I spent a good part of the drive in traffic, I was in a wonderful mood. It was simply nice to know that a stranger cared enough to dedicate some time and thought to help me. I wished that I would ask for directions more often. Not only while traveling, but also in everyday life. When I feel lost, instead of turning to books or to the faceless crowd of the Internet, to seek the wisdom of another individual. The directions I will get may not always be accurate, but they will always come from the heart, and sometimes, that’s the only thing that matters.