Randall Road, Route 64, Route 38, Route 31, Route 25: The main roads in in a web of right angles. I was nearly 21 and those roads anchored my 2005 summer home of St. Charles, approximately 40 miles west of Chicago. Suburbia. A gridiron landscape where the cardinal directions are king and the occasional roundabout or irregular subdivision break the flow. Public transit is sparse. The five main runs link neighboring towns while forming arteries from retail to residential to everything in between.
Fresh from the small towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I knew grids and blocks and the residential-commercial divide as well as any suburbanite. I knew that this particular grid, one that would only last me for the summer, was probably the same. I knew it was temporary, a place for lucrative summer employment. All I needed to learn were the main roads. The Big Five. I’d lived by them. If I couldn’t find it on one of those critical stretches of asphalt, it didn’t exist. One left and a right had me on Randall, from there, a left or right eased me onto Route 38 or Route 64. A left or right from either of those would send me north or south on one of the two odd numbered state highways.
The pattern worked for me. I made it fit my needs.
Then I met a woman with a 15 month old son. My old temporary summer stay quickly became my new permanent. But I held on to doing things one way and one way only: The only way I knew. Our first apartment was just off Randall and the traffic it welcomed each day was visible from the deck. It was loud, but comforting to me. The blurring of headlights and taillights in the trailing light of day was a backdrop for my life. My ranking as a knowledgeable resident was poor and my standing as a parent, both financially and emotionally, was the same. Ignorance is prime at only 21.
Over the next few years I let myself accept the permanency of my temporary plan. I accepted that my new family was not in moving mode. My partner enjoyed being close to her parents and our son, then four and a half, was entering preschool. I let myself discover alternate paths as a way of handling the lack of change. I took a new job and we moved. Life were fresh.
The small, residential veins that prevent the main roads from being completely congested at all hours worked their way into my life. I wanted to learn all of them and I felt a sense of pride not in knowing the shortcuts, but in creating them. I treated my new found interest as an art, realizing that shortcuts are exciting. I found no shame in the easy way out of a situation. I was streamlining.
If the second of four lights was green on my approach, I’d continue strait for another 50 yards to a low-traffic stop and a right turn. If that second light was red on my approach, my entire strategy changed. Time was critical. Paths were chosen based on the direction of my next turn, the busyness of the intersection, and the speed limit of each street.
My weaving, strategic style of living kept me occupied and years passed with rolling stops and yield signs that were easily disregarded. It was less evasion than it was creative maneuvering. Rigidity marked things difficult and I was convinced that every turn, every avoided light, saved me a considerable amount of time. I streamlined my driving and my life benefited in the process, but that process grew less appealing.
I stopped caring about speed.
Shaving one solid minute off of my drive was no longer rewarding. But different routes remained of interest. I went from racing time to taking time, choosing streets based on their appeal. For months, my wanderings brought me down Seventh Street, a grid-style offshoot from Route 64 on the west side of the river, that lead nowhere other than the heart of residential suburbia. More significantly, it leads me by an aged, deep green Victorian: A large house on a lot that sits three wide and two deep with a carport to the north.
I chose streets based on the amount of space between the sidewalk and the road itself, favoring the larger parkways. I enjoyed the symmetry of the trees that filled those parkways. I based my turns on the name of the street, the age of the asphalt, or the general character of the houses, with a certain fondness for bungalows and midcentury ranches, though I never want to live in either.
I watched the time, but I did so by allowing for extra, leaving early so I could waste time wandering. The number of turns and routes and options seemed endless. The nuances I notice were inspiring. Each route was unique and every direction offered different discoveries.
But even that excitement has faded. Discovery only lasts for so long before becoming commonplace. I was losing rather than gaining, adding time simply in the interest of time. Eventually I stopped caring about the mysterious Victorian, the streets named after evergreens, and the parkways that could serve as small parks. The main drags and the small streets now blend together and my goal is to get to my destination with as little thought or effort or interest as possible so I can enjoy being there.
I’m at the end of the shortcuts. Last time, I moved to fix this problem. This time I don’t know. But I know that when the way loses its appeal, it’s time for something to change. And there’s no shortcut for figuring out what that change needs to be.