Chapter 10
Too Many Turns

You can't get there from here.

Giving directions in Texas is easy. Take 183 south to 360 south to 2222 east, up the mountain, turn left on XYZ. That can take you ten or twenty miles in relatively few words. Not so here. A reasonable rule of thumb here is that nothing goes straight for more than a mile and a half. So a trip of ten to twelve miles will, on the average, involve about eight turns. This morning's trip from Dedham back to Cambridge, eleven miles, caused the GPS to generate fifteen turns. But a lot of those were small distances, just two or three blocks between turns. (And we would never have got home without the assistance of the GPS. At least Charlie on the MTA knew where he was. We would have been lost until the St. Bernard with the brandy found us.)

The roads here don't tend to go in straight lines. Planned cities have the luxury of straight streets, but old towns do not. Roads here tend to follow the contour of the land, or the river, or the swamp, or whatever was there two or three hundred years ago. Does not make for neat maps.

One familiar note: street names often change when they cross major roads or town lines. One is transported magically from Beacon Street in Somerville to Hampshire Street in Cambridge, just by going a couple feet across the line. (One is reminded of Ambrose Bierce's definition of boundary: n, In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.) Just try giving directions to a stranger. Texas does this all the time, too, at least in Austin, and it is maddening because it is completely arbitrary. There was a Tale of Texas on this topic.

Aside: There is one common case of gratuitous renaming that seems almost excusable. The road going from PlaceX to PlaceY might understandably be labeled in two or three different ways. When you are in PlaceX, the road is called "PlaceY Road" because you take it to get to PlaceY. Similarly, when in PlaceY, it is called "PlaceX Road" for the analogous reason. And in the middle, it might be designated "PlaceX-PlaceY Road" because it runs from one to the other. You still have to guess which direction is which, but at least you have a 50-50 chance. This sort of naming is standard in Britain, very common in New Jersey and other places with strong, early British influence, and sometimes here. But arbitrary street-renaming is more common here, and more misleading.

One odd note: At one point, we were instructed in writing to turn onto "Saint Paul Street." But the GPS oddly insisted on pronouncing it "Street Paul Street." After I thought about it for a moment, the reason became clear. The name is probably abbreviated in the GPS's map as "St. Paul St." And any GPS worth its salt knows that "St." is pronounced "Street." No exceptions for Peter, Paul, or Mary. Probably works for all the other saints, too.