A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Like a Chimpanzee with an AK-47

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – At some point in the trip – maybe while plowing through rush-hour traffic on old Route 1 south of Portland; maybe dining on fettuccine and meatballs in an Italian restaurant in teeming Windham; maybe approaching my fourth toll booth on the Maine Turnpike – I vowed to myself out loud, “By god, I’ll never do this again!”

It had seemed like an almost-perfect idea. I had to drive to Gorham, N.H., Wednesday, spend the night in a motel, and first thing next morning record an interview for “Windows to the Wild” at the Mount Washington Observatory up at the summit. On Friday I needed to show up in time for afternoon preprandial snacks at the summer home of friends on the coast. It seemed like a shame to retrace my steps to Montpelier Thursday evening and then set out anew over the same ground Friday. Aha! My fertile brain kicked in.

Most of the driving would be on secondary roads, and there was a magnificent example of one of those running right up Mount Washington. I have a friend living near the mountain who’s kind of a car guy. I’d stay over an extra night in Gorham and invite him to go up the mountain with me first thing Friday. I’d take Helga, my 25-year-old German roadster (who’s never let me down), to make it more interesting. After descending, I’d have time to make it to Brunswick, Maine, (two-plus hours) for lunch with another friend. What could possibly go wrong? Until I headed east into Maine, nothing did.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the part of Maine a few miles in from the coast. It’s a maze of ancient trails that have morphed into roads. It looks like one of those webs woven by spiders on cannabis. Only a fool would tackle it without a good road map. No problem. I’d use my unerring GPS to find my way. A piece of cake.

Hubris was my undoing. I wanted to feel the wind in my hair, so left Helga’s top down. But with the sun shining into the car, I couldn’t see the screen of the GPS; with the sound of the wind in my ears, I couldn’t hear Bridget, the Irish lass who gives me directions. For some reason, she’s quit talking to my hearing aids. Thus, at least partially embraced by the latest technology, we hurtled eastward into oblivion. I reasoned that with the whole North Atlantic in front of me, I was bound to hit it somewhere, and a left turn would take me to Brunswick.

I missed lunch with my friend in Brunswick. I spent eight bucks on tolls dashing up and down I-95 at 85 miles an hour with big pickup trucks roaring past me. I finally gave up looking for a Brunswick exit (there isn’t any), and using my Atlantic Ocean reasoning, turned east until I hit good old US Route 1, which I knew from long ago. It was by now rush hour. We putted doggedly from traffic light to traffic light and at length reached Portland, where a fortuitous phone call from my traveling companion, who was already enjoying preprandials in Harpswell, set me straight. I pulled in about 7 p.m., just in time for supper, apologetic and wiser.

I started home Monday morning, got lost again, finally located US 302, and followed it religiously back toward Vermont. When we stopped in the yard at last, my trip odometer read 740 miles. Helga seemed to be asking, “Uh, are we done here?”

Next morning I stopped at the AAA office and picked up a road map of the State of Maine. Never again will I venture into terra incognita without a map. Technology may be great, but it assumes a certain ability on the part of the operator. An octogenarian in a top-down 25-year-old roadster is a lot like a chimpanzee with an AK-47. At least I didn’t hit anything.

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