Not Lost, Just Map-Challenged

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By John Kelly
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

In the past we humans knew how to get from Point A to Point B.

We could navigate by the stars. We could read the moss on the side of a tree or the blades of grass bent by a migrating herd of caribou. We instinctively knew where we were going, and if we didn't, well, we'd fall into a glacier and get flash frozen -- which even then was better than having to stop and ask for directions.

Today, though, we dare not release the parking brake on the SUV without a detailed printout from Mapquest on the seat next to us. Or, better yet, with a colorful screen on the dashboard gently counseling us on when to turn right and when to turn left.

The map -- that pathetic relic of the 20th century -- is obsolete.

But a map was all I was armed with when I went in search of a house in Arlington not long ago. I hadn't bothered to punch my coordinates into Mapquest before casting off from home, and my minivan is woefully under equipped: no DVD player, no satellite navigation system, no Bowflex home gym or solar-powered convection oven.

Still, I was confident, cocky even. I had an ADC map of the region, and I had an address, an address on 32nd Street.

Now, I may have been an English major, but I can count to 32, and I know that it comes after 31, which comes after 30. All I had to do, I figured, was get in the general vicinity -- the high 20s, say -- and then let numbers be my friend.

Then I discovered that the person who laid out this part of Arlington had a sense of humor. I wasn't expecting a rectilinear grid, exactly. But I was expecting some sort of order. I wasn't expecting numbered streets to dead-end into petulant little cul-de-sacs or to cup-handle back onto themselves, like a snake swallowing its tail.

I wasn't expecting numbered streets to be shadowed by numbered roads , so that there appeared to be two separate Arlingtons built on top of one another.

I wasn't expecting entire blocks to just disappear so that I'd drive past 31st Street and then 33rd Street, wondering all the while what happened to 32nd Street.

Finally I pulled over to a side street and consulted my map, tracing my finger along the meandering route I'd taken. When I came to the edge of the page, my blood ran cold at what I read: "Here be dragons."

No, just kidding. What it said was: "See ADC's 'NORTHERN VIRGINIA STREET MAP' For Continuation."


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