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Never trust a map. This is a lesson I never seem to learn. True, the basic travel atlas works perfectly well when you're plotting a course from one interstate to the next, say the 40 to the 15 or the 25 to the 70. But if you're an atypical traveler, say like me, and you're trying to thread the needle from Tucson to Sierra Vista on a tiny road that looks charming and irresistable and, well, so right ... then take my word for it: send that atlas out the window at 55 mph and watch it flap and flutter to the ground like a downed grouse. It's about as useful as one.

The little roads are never where they're supposed to be, and in some cases, aren't anywhere at all. I never made it to Sierra Vista that day, never came close, thanks to the distinguished cartographers of the Rand McNally corporation. Instead, I wound up on a rocky switchback that hugged the Mexican border and left me bouncing along at 9,000 feet on a road that seemed capable of shaking my car into a pile of its component bolts and screws. It was a searingly beautiful day, the sunlight radiant, and I could see 50 miles clear into Mexico. Normally I live for happy accidents like this. Yet I was seriously lost in a place where human beings do not exist, for good reason, and my psyche fell prey to images of my skeleton splayed along the road with a bony hand wrapped around a spent Aquafina. I am adventurous to a degree, bordering on dumb, but I do possess an inner chicken. There is a time to revel in being lost, and a time to be seriously freaked by it. I gripped the wheel hard and continued on.

I lurched along for what seemed like several hours, and then blessedly, the road turned northward and began to descend. After a bit everything reversed itself. The rocks morphed back into asphalt, little signs of life appeared in the distance, and my breathing, which had alternated between suspended and shallow, returned to normal.

I knew I had returned to the land of Rand McNally when I saw horses sauntering in the slanting evening sunlight. I picked up the road to Bisbee, cast a final glance in the rearview, and vowed that I would never again be seduced by the dotted serpents of my travel atlas.

That pledge lasted all of a day or two. There's a fine line between sensible exploration and outright stupidity, and I know damn well which side I live on. As a good friend of mine likes to say: "Gotta be me."

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Returning to Earth
July 2007