Happy to be here: Taking an alternate route

Published 11:15 am Saturday, July 8, 2023

Summer provides an excellent opportunity to hit the road and visit favorite people and places. Some trips span days or weeks, others take just a few hours.

For me, trip planning used to mean sorting through my collection of national, state, and regional maps. The advent of electronic maps and phone-based direction apps changed all that. When I provided my starting point and destination, the new tools at my fingertips calculated routes, alerted me to construction zones, and kept an eye on traffic conditions. Variable magnification options gave me the option of seeing the entire route or zooming in for particulars that even the most detailed printed maps couldn’t provide. 

I loved it. It was fun, but I soon discovered the downsides. Loss of phone signal in a remote area meant navigation assistance quit working exactly when I needed it most. Stopping for gas or food often confused the system. I recall when the app I was using insisted that I had to travel about a dozen miles on backroads to re-enter a highway at an interchange I’d already driven past. From my vantage point at the gas pump, I could see the highway’s on-ramp. Confused, I asked the station attendant if there was any reason I couldn’t just get back on the highway at that spot. No. No reason.

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The biggest issue, however, was that the app planned routes I didn’t want to take. For example, I have family and friends who live in New York and New England. My phone consistently directed me to I-95. It never seemed to understand that I didn’t want to wait in the ubiquitous multi-mile backups or wind through other urban snarls around Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.

Freedom came when I asserted my power to disobey. I went back to my maps and plotted a route more to my liking. 

Nowadays when I leave Farmville, I head north toward Charlottesville and take I-64 to I-81. Depending on my ultimate destination, I can head east in Pennsylvania along I-78 or I-84. My phone persists in making attempts to get me to turn back toward I-95, but I can outsmart it by adding pretend stops in Winchester, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Admittedly, my circuit adds about 60 miles to the journey. It’s time well spent. If you can navigate the I-95 corridor from Richmond to New York City with less than an accumulated hour stuck in traffic, you know some magic I’ve never discovered.

I’ve also learned to disregard my app’s driving directions closer to home. When visiting my favorite destinations in the Richmond area (the zoo, the botanical gardens, the art museum, to name a few), it insists on traversing VA-307 to get from US-460 to US-360. The app doesn’t understand that VA-307 curls its way up and down some significant hills. Hills where you can’t see oncoming traffic. Hills where that oncoming traffic may very well be in your lane. 

On multiple trips, I experienced face-to-face encounters with traffic that had drifted across the center line. I also suffered the terror of facing oncoming vehicles in my lane as they made poorly timed attempts to pass other traffic. I am truly grateful that I avoided personal tragedy, but I have read a sufficient number of news accounts to know that others have not been as fortunate. 

After numerous scares, I decided there wasn’t anything in Richmond that was worth my life. Then someone told me about an alternate route: Stay on US-460 and pick up US-360 in Burkeville. Going the long way around actually takes less than an extra ten minutes. I haven’t driven on VA-307 since.

Of course, there are always challenges. No matter the destination, every route includes a mix of benefits and risks. And, sometimes problems pop up that require unplanned detours.

Wherever you are headed this summer, if you use a phone app for directions, by all means consider what it suggests. Look at current traffic conditions. Be aware of road construction. But also take charge of where you want to go and how you want to get there. There are always alternatives. I wish you a pleasant and safe journey.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.