I was anti-GPS when they first started appearing on the dashboard of SUVs everywhere. I saw them as just another way to use technology to insulate us from the uncertainty of actual experience. Expat drivers who feared public transportation on suburban principle used them to navigate London. As someone who had had her share of frantically consulting an A-to-Z map at stoplights, you would think that I would have jumped at the chance to use one, but instead I saw them as a vote for ignorance. I don’t need to know where I am because the machine will tell me where to go. La la la.
There were stories in the news about drivers being commanded to traverse streams due to mapping errors. Using her new iPhone, my friend found herself down an alley in Baltimore while being told that she had arrived at the museum.
But that was a few years ago. Technology improves and now there is the talking Google maps app, which I prefer over the Siri/Safari one, where it shows you and your route only. If you miss your turn, there you are as a blue dot traveling away from the blue line while your husband snaps at you. With the talking map, your husband won’t even know you have missed the turn because it adjusts and reroutes. It anticipates your questions and says things like, in 500 feet, slight right to stay on whatever road it is.
It’s not perfect, but in general I like it. It is a good thing to use in Dothan, Alabama.
I am in Dothan for a tennis tournament. I don’t know my teammates very well and we don’t know our way around Dothan, a large town with a huge ring road. We have four key places we need to get to and go between and the talking map is a big help.
In 200 feet turn right.
I become the map girl. We get into the car and I punch in whichever court we’re going to. Because we don’t know each other that well, they don’t know about my love of photographing old signs. I am shooting out of the car window, toggling between camera and map.
On our last day, I ask D. if we can stop on the way out so I can get a shot of the oyster bar/nightclub. The other car is following us. They stop, too. Now there are two cars of tennis ladies outside of a nightclub. A guy comes out to see what’s going on. Get the mural over there, too, someone says. It becomes kind of a team effort.
On our way home, it’s just D. and me. If there’s anything you want to stop for, just tell me, she says.
Leaving Dothan, I shoot the sign for the Hobo Pantry convenience store out of the window and am amazed to find out, further along the road to Montgomery, that it is some kind of chain because there is another one, another Hobo Pantry, what were they thinking??, between Ozark and Troy, when we stopped for gas. If you do a search for Hobo Pantry, you find surveillance camera stills and videos of robberies, mug shots, QR codes and Juggalos, but no corporate presence, no explanation of when, why and how this became the name for a business.
Furthermore, the guy working there, this enormous, heavyset black man, is in the midst of a transformation, his massive forearms hairless, his eyebrows redrawn and his voice low and melodious. What must it be like to be a transgender Hobo Pantry employee in Ozark, Alabama? One hopes he has a community that is larger and more diverse than what we would imagine he might find there. I ask D. if she noticed him and she did.
She tells me about a girl she knows who, at 10, who despairs of the conservative views of her family and their town, which has a population of about 15,000 and is in a dry county. A church sign there bears the message “Dusty bibles lead to dirty lives.” This is the town I wrote about, where we collected our side of grass-fed beef from the deer processing place the first summer we lived here and each packet of beef came with a sticker that said “Smile, Jesus Loves You.” It has a main street you could fall in love with, like a movie set version of what a small town should look like.
The girl finds the disapproving attitudes of her family and peers about same-sex marriage stifling. She wants them to see things differently. I don’t know what D.’s views are, but she tells the girl to hang in there and that when she goes to away to college she will find lots of people who think as she does. The girl, she says, is just thinking about things at a different level and the world is a bigger place.
We turn back for this amazing motel sign. As in Dothan, a man ambles out of the office, just to check. Do we look like troublemakers, still in our tennis clothes? I wave, get in car. Later, there is a big aluminum sign with holes riddled through it to read “Ye need to be born again.” A little ways on, we pass a large wooden water wheel, which I remark on. Oh, she says, somewhere along here there’s that sign about the devil. And as she says it, there’s a second water wheel, smaller, and a huge sign, which says “Go to church or the Devil will get you!” It makes dusty bibles sound euphemistic. This is the real deal: a devil with curling toes and his scythe out to harvest souls, never mind with the symbolism of housework. The water wheels suggest Blake’s satanic mills and also an unforgiving and relentless faith that fashions signs for motorists with the word Ye in them.
Drive north for 800 miles.
Do you want to go back? But I figure enough people will have stopped already (and they have) and we will never get home, driving in loops.
The world is a bigger place, but are the small towns only for the conservative? People ask us about the move from London to Alabama, as if one is stuffing an inflatable pool dolphin into a matchbox. Why must the girl leave? Can’t a place expand in its own way? Maybe the transforming clerk is happy where he is. Isn’t it a matter of perspective?
In a quarter mile, exit right.
Your destination is all around you
Screenshot of the devil sign from this blog.