Updated: Sep 28
Yes, we’re opening with with “back in the day,” so let’s just move on.
Back in the day, GPS availability to the general public was new and novel. Today, we don’t think much about it. For the modern world, GPS lives in the background, always there silently checking our location, knowing where we are before we do. But, back in the day, GPS demanded its own, brick-sized, handheld receiver to communicate with us. The screens were typically black and white with pixels reminiscent of games on my 1982 Atari 2600. Some of the more expensive GPS models, back in the day, had highways and major roads built into their memories. Yet, even with all of these advancements, they didn’t have enough information to replace the road maps we find stuffed in our vehicle’s glovebox.
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For those of you who may have missed out on the roadmap era, imagine a poster-size, two-sided, folding paper puzzle. The object of this puzzle is to unfold it, figure out where you are and how to get where you need to be (without turning the map upside down), and then fold it back up into its original configuration. Ask around. The whole process is easier said than done. If fact, I’ve never seen a glovebox that had a used map perfectly folded back into place.
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With a handheld GPS unit and an improperly folded road map, travelers, back in the day, possessed the freedom to safely go anywhere in the United States without having to stop and ask for directions…ever.
Now, back in those primitive, pre-G5 reception days, I was tasked with driving a fifteen passenger van full of adventurous hikers, along with a trailer full of luggage, to the Grand Canyon for a weekend adventure. I packed the glovebox with a set of perfectly folded maps and purchased a brand new, top of the line, GPS unit. What could possibly go wrong?
Also remember, back in the day, we didn’t have smartphones. Seriously. We were on a road trip without the technology to check social media, or watch highlights from The Office, and forget about posting your political views on Twitter. Instead, we…wait for it…talked. Yep, we were forced into good ol’ friendly, although sometimes distracting, conversation. So naturally, without Siri to warn us of our upcoming turn fifteen times before actually getting to the intersection, we missed a critical turn on our journey.
As we unknowingly traveled further from our route and deeper into Arizona’s stunning back country, I gradually realized that the shoulders of the highway were disappearing. Then, the road narrowed and eventually ended. Well, not completely. But, the surface had transitioned from lined asphalt to rutted dirt. Yet we traveled on…slowly.
The raucous chatter in the van soon began to quiet and then…silence. My passengers had noticed the change in road surface. They were on to me. Forced to admit missing that critical turn, I stopped the van and said to the doubting eyes glaring back at me. “Look here! Our GPS is still tracking us from orbit.” I assured everyone, including myself, that we were not lost. Far from it! The unpaved road extended ahead of us as far as we could see. I reasoned with the now murmuring troop that the ruts in the road proved that other vehicles had passed this way. And even if we did decide to backtrack, the narrowing road meant we would have to unload and unhitch the trailer, perform a 15 point turn, re-hitch the trailer and reload. That sealed the deal. Onward! Besides, a little adventure never hurt anyone.
Before putting the van in gear, I glanced again at the GPS and realized that while the asphalt road we had been traveling along was still visible on the screen, the blinking pixel representing our van was no longer on that road. Our pixel was surrounded by a gray GPS wasteland. A bit disconcerting yes; still no need to worry. We still had our roadmaps and roadmaps were designed for just these predicaments. I grabbed the perfectly folded puzzle and rapidly spread it before me (completely ignoring the part about returning it to its original configuration). I looked at the map, flipped it over and back and blinked my eyes hoping to reveal what I seemed unable to find. This was a ROAD map…and according to now both the GPS and the map, we were not on a road.
So, there we were, left with only the dusty road before us. Still, I put the van in gear and started us moving slowing down the road, which, as we continued, was getting narrower and rougher. At this point you maybe thinking, “Why not call someone, like the Forest Service?” But remember this is “back in the day.” During these digital dark ages, phone booths still existed and cell phone reception was reserved for interstates and big cities.
With each passing minute, we started to look for a portion of the road where we might have a chance of unloading and turning around before the sun disappeared below the horizon. The map has run out of road, our GPS position is unknown, and our way forward is in doubt. What uncertainties still lie ahead? What unexpected cliff is waiting beyond the next turn?
One way or another, we have all found ourselves in similarly uncomfortable moments. In fact, as I write this, the world seems to be traveling on a similar road into the unknown. Our calendars are only good for the next 24 hours, if that. And, it seems that all we can do is to keep looking for some glimmer of hope to appear around the next bend.
And then, just as the last bit of light filtered through the dusty windshield, we saw it. We see them each and every day along the roadside, but we rarely pay attention to them. But on this day, on this road, in this moment, one appeared as a shining beacon of hope. Standing along the side of this deserted, dirt road was the silver back of a road sign.
Obviously, it bore no message. After all, we were looking at the normally unappreciated backside of the sign. But it was the very fact that we were looking at the back of this sign that brought us hope. If we could see the back of the sign, then there was someone out there, in the middle of this vast wilderness, coming toward our position in the opposite direction who would be looking at the frontside of this sign for direction. In essence, someone had traveled this way before us, in the opposite direction, and left markers.
Sometimes, the greatest hope for our future is simply knowing that someone else has traveled along the road where we currently find ourselves. Someone has gone before us and left a sign or two to let us know that they have been where we are.
Eventually, our rutted forest service road ended behind a closed gas station along the very same highway that Siri would have kept us on (had I not missed that critical turn). In the end, we had traveled down an unplanned, uncertain, and unsettled shortcut.
Today the back of that road sign in the middle of seemingly nowhere continues to offer me direction. I am reminded that in my daily life I am leaving signs for those who will follow after me. I don’t mean the signs that I am intentionally posting to tell family and friends to slow down, stop, or turn here. But the ones that I am unintentionally leaving for those I may never meet. The ones that look like the back of a road sign. The question then becomes, what bearing and course are my days providing for those who will travel this way? On those signs that we daily place along the roadside, am I showing compassion, seeking justice or simply turning a stranger into a friend. These signs are not just about the messages we pass along or the tasks we complete. They are about the faith, integrity, humility and courage that guide our decisions and confirm our intentions. These are the everyday, often unnoticed signs that can keep others moving forward, hoping for better roads ahead. These unintentional signs are the ones that often matter the most.