Growing up, we had a road atlas.
It was a Rand McNally, probably from the mid 80s. There was a map of the entire country on the first two pages, and a map of every state, in alphabetical order, on the following pages. For the most part, it was one state to a page, except for the larger states, like California and Texas, who got two pages each. There were insets of major metropolitan areas on many states, with a few of the larger areas evening earning their own pages.
The Atlas lived in the top drawer of the sideboard, where it sat, closed, on top of folders and cards, papers and old calendars, and whatever else my mother had laying around in there. Occasionally, my brother or I would take it out for fun, but mainly it just stay in the drawer.
When we needed to go somewhere, we would pull out the Atlas and find our destination, and then study the interstates, to find the best way to get from here to there. This usually entailed crossing state line, because my folks had a pretty good idea of how to get to just about anywhere in my home state. Likewise, they knew what route to take to leave the state, depending on our destination. But somewhere along the drive, the Atlas, now along for the ride in the car, would be put to use, to help us figure out exactly where to go.
It wasn’t a perfect system. It couldn’t get you to an exact address, unless the city you were going to had an inset, but it could get you to a town. Perhaps it wasn’t the most efficient, but it worked.
Growing up, I knew exactly where I was going.
My path was laid out in front of me, road signs clearly marking the way. I knew where I wanted to get in life, and I knew exactly how to get there. Everything was simple. The route was obvious, the destination straight out in front of me.
I went down that path for years, probably over a decade. It wasn’t an easy path, it took a lot of hard work to get to where I wanted to be, but the road to my goal was clear as day.
And then, suddenly, with my goal within reach, I spun off that highway. I tried to get back on, but the on ramp was closed. That destination was forever blocked to me. I couldn’t get there anymore.
I picked myself up and dusted myself off, shaken but not deterred. I found a new path to start down. It wouldn’t get me to where I had wanted to go, but it would take me somewhere similar, and it was just as well defined. So I headed down that road. And for a little while, it seemed like I was making progress, like I was getting somewhere.
But it turned out to be a dead end. I stepped off the pavement and looked around for a trail, but nothing turned up. My destination was still there, and was still open to me, but there was no foreseeable path for me to get there from where I was.
So finally, I just sat down.
The world kept on moving, but I didn’t. This was a strange place for me to be. My whole life, I’d known where I wanted to go. I knew how to get there since I was a teenager, and by the time I’d reached 21 the signs pointing to my goal where so bright that I couldn’t miss them. And even though I was forced to change my destination, I’d still be confidently walking down a marked road to my goal before I hit that dead end.
But now I had lost all that. I was adrift.
The promises of my youth, at least for me, had turned out to be ghosts. You can be anything you want to be. Get a college degree and you’ll be successful. I’d done that, but it yielded nothing. I was trained in a professional field, but I couldn’t find work. I’d seen my parents making a good living in decent careers, I’d grown up so sure that a good education and a little hard work would be all it would take for me to find my own way. But it simply didn’t happen. The fortunes of my parents’ generation were not to befall mine.
In the past few years, I’ve gotten back up on my feet. I’m moving forward again, but I know the road I’m on will come to an end, leaving me this time, hopefully not at a barricade but at an intersection, somewhere with options. I’m 30 now, and what I want out of life has changed a little. But I’m no closer to figuring out how to reach my ultimate goal, or even what path I should choose when I reach the next intersection. I miss my early 20s, I miss knowing exactly what I needed to do to get where I want in life. The path before me is far too obscured right now. I’m still lost in a world I don’t know how to navigate anymore.
Growing up, we had a road atlas. Today we have MapQuest and google maps. There are hand-help GPS trackers, and many vehicles have built it GPS. There are numerous smartphone mapping applications. All of these tools will not only tell you the quickest way to get from point A to point B, but give you turn-by-turn directions along with way. But there is nothing that will tell me how to get where I want to go.
I miss the days of the road atlas.