Live Free or Die (by My GPS)

I recently spent a few days at a conference in Albany, NY.

Albany is one hopping place—last year they celebrated the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic trip up the river seeking a new trade route. And what other city has a performing arts center in the shape of an egg that’s so famous that The Simpsons make fun of it? One must admit that this state capital serves only to confuse fifth graders memorizing the 50 capitals; anyone with half a brain would think the capital of New York is New York City.

Maybe I am a bit cynical. If I’m going to spend three days in a hotel at a conference in March, why not choose Orlando? Or San Diego? Maybe Key West?

No, the best location the conference holders could find was Albany.

At least Albany’s drivable from most of New England.

For some reason, even though I didn’t actually do anything at the conference—other than listen to people talk, eat tiny hard candies in colored foil, drink dripping ice water, and eat all freaking day—the conference still was terribly exhausting. Must have been the complete workout my brain got from my synapses firing and fizzling all day and the emotional strain of interacting with hundreds of people I don’t know.

Plus, I had to keep my Blackberry within an arm’s length at conference sessions. That way, during a low moment or times of complete boredom, I could check my email and see if anything more interesting was happening at work than what was going on in concurrent session #6A. Such multitasking was extra exhausting, especially when trying to do it surreptitiously without seeming rude.

At some such meetings, management actually collects people’s Blackberries in a big basket to avoid the situation altogether. Nothing like being punished before you even do anything wrong.

I did lead a 1-½ hour-long workshop at the conference—that required more bursts of energy than normal, as I had to make sure the 23 participants had an intellectual and inspiring time and make sure they weren’t playing on their own Blackberries. I actually enjoyed that part thoroughly. But by Friday, I was exhausted, and ready to go home.

Funny how if you don’t leave a hotel for three days you feel like you have been there a week. I decided to head home via the Mass Pike—not because I like the Pike, but because on the highway, I could use cruise control, turn up my ipod, avoid speeding tickets, and avoid straining my right leg.

But for some reason, the Australian lady on my GPS really, really wanted me to go Route 7 through Vermont. I hit the detour button several times to find my preferred route but she just kept finding new and interesting ways to get to Route 7. I knew the route through Vermont was shorter distance-wise, but actually took longer. The GPS was not going to wear down—it finally exhausted me enough that I decided there was some cosmic reason I should go through Vermont, so I headed toward Troy. 

I am familiar with that route, because my sister lived in Troy for several years (not just the home of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but also of Uncle Sam!). Throughout college and in my early 20s, I drove that road many times to visit her family. This time, I was going that way only due to the blind wishes of cigarette lighter-powered technology over my own sense.

Right on Hoosick Street in Troy, there was that good old Mr. Subb—no idea where Mr. Subb picked up that extra b, but there it was, still with the extra b, still on the same street with its boarded-up buildings. There was Feathers Furniture Store, where my mother bought me a bean bag chair for college—she had seen them colorfully stacked in the window and quickly swerved in because at the time, there was nary a beanbag to be found in New Hampshire (I had that beanbag for about eight years, until my cat starting peeing in it because it gloriously sounded like kitty litter when she kneaded it).

The circuitous paths through the Vermont mountains were still crazy steep and curvy—but also had no cell towers. I had never noticed that before (well, we didn’t have cell phones back in the late 1980s when I drove that route a lot).

Frost heaves were still everywhere—I remember once seeing a warning sign on that road that read “Danger: Frost Heaves Next 91 Miles.” That really made me laugh (only later I figured out someone had added the “1”).

The “No Hitchhiking” sign by the ramp to Route 91 was still there—it reads “No Littering, No Hitchhiking, No Picking Up Hitchhikers, No Snowmobiles, No Horses.” For some reason, that sign always made me giggle. If there are no hitchhikers, how can you pick any up? And who would even try to take a horse on Interstate 91? Someone must have at some point, or clearly they wouldn’t have made the sign (Note: it doesn’t say “No Cows” or “No Llamas”—clearly, there’s still room for some innovation in Vermont).

My favorite attraction along the way was a shop by the side of the road with chainsaw woodcarvings. Dozens of totem poles and bears proudly kept watch on the front lawn, still stuck in late-season snow. Clearly, the chainsaw guy was whipping out these wooden puppies more quickly than demand could keep up, because they were everywhere (or maybe it was a chainsaw woman—this was Vermont, you know).

But clearly, he or she had other hobbies. There was also a hand-lettered sign at the edge of the road that said: “NEED PRAYER? STOP.”

I considered stopping to see what that was all about. What kind of chainsaw-wielding zealot lived inside? I might have used a good prayer or two to keep me company through the dead zone as I drove home.

But the Aussie on my GPS certainly would have freaked out at the sudden turn. There also was clear evidence of at least one very sharp chainsaw on the premises. Who knew what crazy lumberjack was on the other end? All I had to defend myself with was a few cheap hotel pens in my purse.

So, Blackberry dead to the world and with a Mr. Subb fountain soda in my cupholder, I put my foot on the gas. With the full strength of my right leg, I simply headed home.