My ride and me, we never used a GPS. No compass. No MapQuest. We abstained from sextants. For the first third of this journey, a state highway map was our only guide.

Deeper into our drive, untraveled roads became harder to reach. Just to find fresh pavement, we sometimes traveled a hundred miles over routes already covered.

But there was an even bigger problem.

Whenever we reached a “State Maintenance Ends” sign, my map mocked me. Since a state map stops where the state pavement stops, its squiggly black capillaries often delivered me to the abyss. But no further. There, we’d idle at a crossroads, where gravel and dirt trails disappeared in two or three directions. And we’d play a shell game: Any one of these country roads might offer a shortcut to another blacktop, tantalizingly closeby.

“You’re the distance of a spark plug gap to the next fresh road,” the map taunted in its Liliputian language, where 1/16-inch equals a mile. Without showing me the way, the map dared me to take a chance down one dirt road or another.

I knew the rewards: If I guessed correctly, my car would save a gallon of gas. I’d save a half hour of backtracking along pavement already traveled. And we’d save the aggravation of circling around to a blacktop that must be just over that next ridge. Or the next.

But I could just as easily get lost in a maze of deep woods dirt roads.

There was no getting around it.

So I played a guessing game, picking the gravel road that seemed to point in the general direction of the closest blacktop. Often as not, the gravel road would fork, or come to a T. And fork again, and T again. Sometimes we dipped so deep into the woods that the power lines gave up embroidering the roadsides. With less planning than Hansel and Gretel, I’d have to remember my path into the wilderness, because it damn well might be my only sure way out. That deep descent into lost happened ten dozen times. Often we’d reach a dead end, or begin to run out of gasoline or daylight or both, and we’d backtrack to safe haven, if I could remember the way out.

Then a light bulb came on in my dim noggin. I called the highway department. “Sure, we have county road maps,” they said. “They’re a few years old…might be a bit out of date.”

I didn’t care. Within a week, we carried the maps that would save the planet from our wasteful wandering. Each county map could cover a coffee table. And each one showed me every gravel road, every dirt road and low water crossing. Even cemeteries.

Erifnus’ back seat converted to a chart room. From that point forward, we felt our way into the unknown with the confidence that we could find our way out.

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