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Driving Without a GPS in the Brandywine Valley


On a perfect fall day, I wandered country roads outside West Chester, happily lost. I had a destination, but no deadline, no timetable. So I set out without my GPS.

I was in search of a country market that offers the best cider doughnuts ever. I knew one route, following it beyond West Chester, until I came upon a sign: “BRIDGE OUT.”

I drove on and, sure enough, an old stone expanse over the Brandywine River was completely blocked off. I reversed my direction and quickly turned onto a road I’d never traveled before, happy not to have my GPS. My friend actually calls hers “Myrtle,” which sounds less like something a spy would need and more like a girlfriend with a map to all the best outlets.

Though I’m no rocket scientist, I do have a general understanding of the global positioning system’s satellites and signals. I like to imagine a sort of high-tech Where’s Waldo? exercise being initiated when a GPS is activated.

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On this day, though, I was puttering down winding roads with little or no traffic, listening to Vivaldi and Puccini while relying on half-forgotten skills acquired long ago from my father. My dad was an articulate, funny, resourceful man. A World War II veteran, he was quite good at finding his way just about anywhere. I drew on the things he taught me about the position of the sun and natural features. I knew that the country market I sought was south of Marshallton and not far from the Brandywine, so I stayed close to the water and pointed my Honda south.

After a few course corrections and a turnaround in one rather tricky place, the road rose up out of a stand of oaks. There, on the crest of the hill, was the market. I bought steaming apple cider and warm, cinnamon-sugar-coated doughnuts before returning to my CR-V. Driving home along the banks of the meandering Brandywine, crumbs in my lap, I waved to cyclists on the same route and crossed paths with a couple in an old Ford Fairlane convertible.

There’s something healthy and almost primal about using senses and smarts to find your way. There’s joy in letting the unfamiliar unfold before you.

Oh, I realize not every trip is suited to such unfettered exploration. I also know that, sometimes, the implied certainty of that disembodied female voice is both a comfort and a necessity. But every so often, it’s fun to leave Myrtle at home.

Barbara Wade’s GPS “home” is Paoli.