Thursday, April 13, 2006

Now That's Why I Bought a Cell Phone

Five years ago, my avowed reason for turning from a cell-phone hater to a cell-phone buyer was that it would be helpful if I ever got into an emergency when I was driving long distances alone. Well, that and I realized the long distance minutes were nice.

Well, I've used up plenty of long-distance minutes over the years, but I'd never gotten into one of those near-emergency situations that would truly justify the phone's existence. I was sort of thankful for that, but I felt like something was missing. I needed to complete the justification of this gadget's existence in my purse.

This week I got my wish--in the midst of my 26-hour Saskatchewan-to-Michigan end-of-grad-school-term drive.

Let me pick up the story just south of Winnipeg when I turned from the bypass road toward the North Dakota border as the sun was beginning to set. I was alone, 10 hours into an estimated 12 for the day. I was a bit sleep-deprived and just wanted to get to Fargo. I'd been seeing flooded fields all day--it is spring, after all (side note: the buds came out just in time for my arrival in Michigan--I'm very excited). But none of my roads were closed. Until this point, at least. When I turned onto my road, there were road closed signs right away. They were terrible signs, though. Hardly the type that would make me get off the road before I was kicked off. They recommended a detour but didn't tell me how to get to the recommended roads.

So I stayed on the highway until "they" (whoever they was in this case) actually kicked me off. When "they" did that, telling me that the highway was flooded south and giving me helpful arrows pointing both east and west, I turned to the west. I had glanced at my atlas enough while driving to guess that was where the recommended detour was.

But there wasn't a direct road to those other roads. The dusk was coming on. I had a motel reserved in Fargo, 2 hours' drive on the other side of the border. And I was worried about border crossings closing before I made it to one. I needed a quick route--one that was easy to find and not too far out of my way. And my map wasn't terribly detailed. The road I was on wasn't on it. Not that I was terribly surprised at the fact that Manitoba 422 wasn't on it, but still...

So as I turned south on Manitoba 422, I picked up my cell phone and called my friend Brenda.

Why Brenda? We'd driven over similar territory the summer before on the way to Alaska. I knew she was good with maps. And I knew she was good at dealing with me when I was a bit confused.

Brenda was home. And she had wireless internet. So she looked up Google Maps.

What followed was a fascinating lesson in interactive geography. She would tell me if there was a possible road coming up--I would tell her if it looked feasible or not (i.e., whether it was paved or dirt). She would tell me how many streets the village I was coming up to had--I would tell her what kind of buildings it had and how slow I had to go through it.

I could go on, but the upshot of the episode was that she got me to a rather deserted border crossing 42 minutes before it closed, leaving me before my phone went to roaming on the other side of the border with information on what roads were open and what rest areas were closed in North Dakota.

In essence, my 60-mile detour only took me an hour and ten minutes beyond what I'd planned for the trip, which isn't bad as far as "emergencies" go. Doesn't really qualify in some ways at all as an emergency. But then again, without the cell phone it would have been much closer to one. I didn't really have the map I needed to get to a border crossing in time. And as a single female driving alone at night, I probably would have been unlikely to stop to ask directions. And without that friendly voice in my ear, I wouldn't have been nearly as calm as I was.

So, thanks to a combination of my cell phone, my friend Brenda, my old laptop I'd sold to Brenda, a wireless internet connection, Google maps, and road conditions websites, I was fairly painlessly driving into North Dakota on a bright-mooned if occasionally foggy night shortly after I got detoured from the flooded highway. The most dangerous part of the whole experience was the skunk crossing the road in front of me shortly after I made it through customs.

Before I go, there are two points I wanted to make about this incident in connection with my broader points about technology's effect on communication:

  1. Community-building through technology. Many technology nay-sayers claim that technology isolates us--which is sometimes true. But in this case--and many others--it meant that in a very real way, I didn't have to travel alone when I otherwise would have had to.
  2. Intelligence of people who can manage technology. I knew that if I didn't call someone who could read maps--and do it quickly, juggling it with little searches for road conditions, etc.--the call would probably increase my stress and possibly get me more lost than I would have been. Now while it's probably true that you could program a machine--or a GPS router--to do most of what Brenda did, I'm not sure I would trust it to be as good at reacting to my frequent "not-taking-that-road-because-it's-gravel" route changes. I was glad I was definitely glad I was being directed by Brenda, not a GPS system.

No matter what the effects of technology were on the experience, what's clear is that in my post-end-of-the-semester grad school state, the low layer of occasional fog (over which I could always see the bright-mooned sky), seemed to be some sort of emblem of the evening. It's also clear that once I hit the bed at my motel a bit later, I slept the blissful sleep of the sleep-deprived for 8 1/2 hours before heading on to Chicago the next day...


Brenda said...

glad to have been there. honestly and truly (and not just because the challenge of directing someone over the phone was more exciting than doing my homework :))
and even more glad that you made it here safe.

Fluffica said...

i'm glad that you made it okay deb, and it sounds like you kept your wits about you :)

rilla said...

Ah crappy Deb. The flooding in MB is pretty extensive, I hope you can make it home safely -- preferably without the emergency use of a cell phone.

Cindy said...

as soon as you told me you were posting something about Manitoba, I knew it had something to do with flooding. Glad you made it to GR. I wonder how many other things Brenda could come up with that were more exciting than homework... (this whole thing sort of gives the idea of the "invisible friend" a whole new meaning.)

Deborah Leiter said...

As an update, after plenty of sleep, I'm much less sleep-deprived now. I found an article on the flooding--I'm rather glad I didn't know anything about it when I was driving past. It probably would have taken away some of my calm to know, although having lived near the Mississippi during the flood of '93, I know how exaggerated news reports can seem. Really, this article seems much more alarming than the experience really was.