It was my birthday recently and I was chatting to some same aged friends about heading towards sixty. We admitted to showing signs of weakening sight and the odd episode of memory loss. Then one of us (not me), mentioned how she had got a gps for her car. ‘It’s wonderful’ she exclaimed ‘No more worries about not being able to read a signpost or remembering which streets are one way’.
‘We’ll get you one for your birthday’! my friends laughed, seeing the look of horror on my face ‘You can put it on the handlebars of your bicycle’.
‘If one of us succumbs. the rest will surely follow…. even you’
They were teasing of course, knowing full well my thoughts on such an instrument and my passion for heading off exploring small unsigned roads with no idea where I am going to end up.
In my opinion
Signposts spoil spontaneity.
And even though I love Maps, they may also help lose the magic.
The magic that is ‘getting lost’.
The Loveliness of being fully aware of your surroundings as you pedal along looking left and right over ditches, along beaches, over small pot holed boíríns.
The importance of the journey rather than the destination.
If there were neither sign nor map we might stop a stranger to ask the way, strike up a conversation which could lead to a friendship or at least brighten up or add somewhat to each other’s day.
Or better still come accidently upon an unexpected mystical place that no signpost could have directed you to.
It is how I have found many of the hidden gems that John Creedon, in his tv series ‘The wild atlantic way’, asked us to tell him about.
Needless to say I didn’t for two reasons: Firstly if I did they would no longer be hidden but secondly I wasn’t sure if I could find them again myself.
Which is what makes them magical.
I remember back to a time when most smaller roads had no sign posts and you took your chance as you meandered cautiously along them.
My dad, despite his multitude of Ordnance Survey maps, relied a lot on appearances when it came to road directions.
‘This doesn’t feel right’ He would mutter as we sat quietly, for once, in the back of our overloaded car trying to ‘feel’ whatever it was that would tell us if we were going in the right direction.
‘The sun’ He would moan ‘should be on my left’ (or a mountain on my right or the sea in front/ behind).
Getting lost in the west of ireland was part of our summer holidays.
It just wouldn’t be the same if all went smoothly and we arrived at our destination too quickly and, as my father often took different roads to avoid tractors on hills through small villages, or markets or other festivities which could cause havoc trying to get through, it happened often.
My mother, with her astute sense of direction, didn’t get too involved.
She hummed and held her youngest on her lap and enjoyed the passing scenery.
From past experience, she knew that she wouldn’t be listened to. (When she had given her advice, my dad just snorted and went his own way, ending up at some farm gate where we couldn’t turn and had to unhitch the caravan (did I mention our trusty caravan) and maneuver the car around it. (I won’t go into that proceeding, a story in itself) as he had never learnt to reverse with any sort of trailer attached.
But she didn’t mind.
Her younger children were snoozing quietly in the back.
The scenery to her artist’s eye was beautiful.
The car was moving, giving her a changing vista of mountains and rivers and sea which she stored in her mind for future work and the baby, who had been fretful at the start of the journey, was sleeping. She was content to sit back in comfort and let the day evolve(my mom was ahead of her time in the the living in the moment techniques).
For my second eldest sister in the back it was a different story. She was the appointed navigator (we were all an appointed something or other)
Struggling to spread the map in a space filled with her siblings , she tried to keep her finger on a point as the car hit numerous potholes.
‘Next left’ she called and duly a side road came into view through a gap in the willow and alder filled ditch.
‘Nonsense! can’t be!’ My father proclaimed dismissively clinging to the now bouncing steering wheel and once again we were lost.
‘We’ll ask the next person we see’ But now he sounded doubtful. The air gone out of him.
After another half an hour during which the road got progressively worse, we spied an old man pushing a bike, a matted sheep dog following. He stopped and turned to see the cause of such a racket.
My dad came to a halt beside him and rolled down his window. They went into negotiations.
‘Lovely day’ My Dad shouted even though the man was no more than a foot away from him.
To ask him for directions directly would have confused him. The subject of our demise needed to be broached slowly, giving him time to place us.
‘t’is! Aye t’is a grand one indeed’ Was the reply as the old man took in the packed car and the equally ‘filled to the gills’ caravan.
My mother smiled across her husband at him and he tipped his cap at her.
His dog meanwhile sniffed the tyres and relieved himself against the front one, an action which caused my dad great annoyance, but my mother put a restraining hand on his knee, a gentle reminder of who needed who here the most.
My dad held his tongue, understanding he was in no position to complain.
Meanwhile the man, giving up up trying to place us and acknowledging to himself, that we were indeed strangers, continued cheerfully, ‘Rain promised tomorrow’.
We knew it wasn’t.
My dad always rang the long term weather forecast before heading out.
Not that the promise of a storm was going to stop him going anywhere and even though he always shouted ‘rubbish’ into the phone , which made us wonder why he bothered ringing in the first place when he obviously wasn’t going to believe the report, he knew it was correct.
The weather would be fine but he understood where the old man was coming from! It wasn’t good to sound too sure of it as that could well bring the rain in. Just as it wasn’t wise to sound too proud of your field of spuds or your crop of barley in case you drew bad luck on them.
‘Is that so’ my dad answered respectfully.
‘Aye’ said the man.
They spoke some more about getting the hay in and if the turf was dry enough to bring off the bog yet (my dad, though a city man, had an avid interest in all things country)
At last my dad came to the point. ‘We are looking for the road to….
At that the man pushed his cap back on his head and scratched his forehead distractedly.
He looked up the road and back the way we had come. He frowned as though deep in thought.
He pondered and looked up to the sky.
We sat waiting impatiently in the car.
Then his brow cleared.
‘I know the place yer looking for, but you’ve gone too far. Ye should have taken a turn to the right a couple on mile back.
My sister nudged me, smirking into the map.
My dad caught my eye in the mirror and I knew better then to return her triumphant nudge.
‘But sure there’s a small laneway further on that would bring you there too, be the back roads’.
‘Thank You kindly’ my father was already releasing the brake.
But too late!
The old man carefully lays his bicycle in the ditch and ordering his dog to lie down beside it, comes back to the passenger door.
‘Sure tis easier to show ye’.
Seat belts were unheard of then or if they did exist my father forbid us to use them. ‘What if i’m turning on a pier and I reverse into the sea by accident’ he said rationally. ‘How would you get out of the car if you are tied in by a seatbelt?’
We knew the drill from old, it wouldn’t be the first time a turf smelling old man squeezed himself into the back of the car.
We shuffle over obediently.
It could have been worse!
We often had, on similar lost journeys, a manure smelling dog squashed in at our feet as well.