June 19, 2018
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Siri sent me off the beaten path

Courtesy of Sarah Smiley
Courtesy of Sarah Smiley
While driving north on I-95, Sarah Smiley came around a bend and saw the most spectacular sight: behind the cows and the orange and red autumn leaves, Mount Katahdin rose in the distance.
By Sarah Smiley

Since the ubiquitous integration of GPS on our devices in our everyday life, I have found myself off the beaten path more often.

That seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? With better navigation and a hands-free, robot voice giving step-by-step directions, I should be getting from Point A to Point B more directly. Except, it seems that iPhone’s Siri, in particular, has a mind of her own, and I sometimes end up in unchartered territory when I follow her commands.

And I do follow her commands. Dustin does not. Dustin knows better than Siri. He tempts fate by seeing the exit she told him to take, and then passing it by because “it doesn’t seem like the right one.”

“Always follow Siri,” I tell him. “It doesn’t matter what you think. You don’t know what Siri knows.”

Sometimes Siri can predict traffic. Sometimes she knows about detours. She’s like a wizard on the dashboard, and I do not second guess her. Even when I fear she’s sending me off track.

This happened last week when I headed north for a book club event in Houlton, which, for anyone south of Houlton, basically feels like Canada. Indeed, Houlton is near the very top of the map, and as I drove, I had a distinct feeling of climbing a vertical wall, like my car was literally traveling up the United States and teetering on the top.

Interstate 95 is the main road to Houlton, and I’m no stranger to it. When we lived in Jacksonville, Fla., I used I-95 daily. There, it passes by the Jaguars’ stadium and winds through high-rise buildings. When Dustin and I traveled from Jacksonville to our hometowns in Virginia, the directions basically were, “get on I-95, head north for 700 miles, and then get off I-95.”

Since moving to Maine, we travel the northeastern part of I-95 on family vacations through Massachusetts, New York City, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Despite minor differences, in all these areas, I-95 is basically the same. But the stretch of it that runs from Bangor to Houlton is so different that it almost deserves another name. Here, the road signs become sparse (except for the moose warnings, of course), and there are no billboards or rest stops. There are very few exits and long stretches of road where there is nothing but pine trees. Indeed, I had a Bill Murray moment from “What About Bob?” when I realized I was totally alone on I-95 for about 30 minutes on my way to Houlton last week.

Siri was unusually quiet. She had no instructions to give except, maybe, “keep going north… for a very long time.”

But somewhere around Sherman, her voice pierced the silence. She wanted me to take the next exit, even though I was still about an hour away from the destination. I was skeptical and a little afraid. But remember, I always follow Siri.

I left I-95 in my rear view mirror and merged onto a long, winding road that seemed even more lonely than the one before. Now, I was terrified. What if I lost my signal and Siri left me stranded on a deserted road in northern Maine?

I held my breath as I drove, but soon, general stores and empty gas stations gave way to hillsides dotted with grand, old homes with attached barns. Cows grazed in the fields. There was no hustle and bustle here. No cars zooming past. No honking, billboards or stop lights. Just quiet. And sometimes it’s hard to be quiet. I worried about my schedule — Would I be on time? — and the directions — Where was I? — and yet I kept following Siri.

Then I came around a bend and saw the most spectacular sight: behind the cows and the orange and red autumn leaves, Mt. Katahdin rose in the distance. Clouds hugged the top of the mountain, but sun shone all around the base. I stopped my car in the middle of the road, which didn’t matter because there was no one else around. The tires landed on a pile of cow manure, and the earthy smell filled my nose as I rolled down the window to take a picture. The picture didn’t do the vision justice. I moved on.

It’s a good thing the world is slower and less crowded up there, because I was a reckless driver peering at the views and snapping pictures at every turn. I was sad when Siri told me to get back on I-95.

I don’t know why the GPS sent me off the highway for 45 miles that day. There seemed to be no reason for it. On my way home, I tried to take the detour again, but Siri insisted I use I-95 instead. As I drove, I caught distance glimpses of the hillsides, cows and barns, and for a moment, I was insanely jealous of all those people over there, off the beaten path.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.

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