How is it that someone becomes a master of one’s local terrain? We live in a world where it is easy to travel around the world by plane or by boat, and there are a great many places where one can drive for days on fast highways. In some parts of the world, one can ride on rapid trains and watch the space disappear. In none of these cases, though, does one gain a great deal of local knowledge about how to drive in an area. If we fly, we may see an area from the sky, but it is hard to know how the area is put together unless we are dropping close to the surface in slower planes or when jets are coming in for a landing. Quick trains and fast driving similarly give us very limited perspectives of what we see on the particular routes we happen to be on, and most water travel on boats is on the frequently featureless sea where the bathymetry around is entirely unknown to us.
Obviously, then, none of these methods will grant us the sort of local knowledge that allows us to know a town well, or at least well enough to be able to improvise when things go wrong. For that, you need to go a bit slower, driving slowly through local roads with one’s eyes peeled on the roads and business that are around, like gas stations, for example. Riding bikes or walking helps out as well, as you get to know a lot about an area if you are traveling at a low speed, especially the specific terrain it has that may not be obvious when you are flying over it. This sort of local knowledge does not come easily–it takes some time at least, depending on how large the area one is dealing with is and how many main roads are present, and it certainly takes a fair bit of intentionality, including traveling to and from the same places going as many different ways as possible, so that one knows how to travel to handle various bottlenecks and blockages that would normally affect one’s journey.
This happens more often than one might think. At least twice, for example, during the course of my recent trip to California, once on the 4th of July itself during the evening and again yesterday during the trip back, local knowledge or the lack thereof was a key element in the trip that was taken. A bit more local knowledge would have provided a much faster (if somewhat longer geographically) detour around the blockage on Mt. Hermon in Scotts Valley that was certainly not aided by incompetent traffic direction by the local police there. Traveling on CA-9 south to CA-1 and then north up CA-17 would have done the trick nicely, and one could have even taken CA-9 north and then south on CA-17 if one wanted to. There were options, in other words. Likewise, traffic approaching the Portland area that was blocking I-5 to stop and go traffic as far south as Eugene provided an opportunity to travel on various roads to get around the mess, including OR-99E, OR-126, and OR-213 and 211, all of which, together allowed for an enjoyable drive through small towns and beautiful countryside rather than infuriating stop and go traffic on a freeway. But to take those roads one has to know those roads.
And gaining that knowledge costs time and effort. It takes very little effort these days to use a GPS system or to go online to a place like Google Maps and get directions to go somewhere. It may not be easy to follow those directions, but to obtain them is not a challenging feat. But to acquire the local knowledge that allows one to improvise a way around difficulties on one’s own does take time and effort as well as at least some geographical sense. Not everyone is able or willing to acquire that sort of knowledge or even wishes to explore a particular area well enough to know what options are available. But life’s joys are frequently found in exploring those details, in seeing familiar areas in a new light when one has taken a different path there, and in seeing the ways that areas fit together as part of larger contexts when one explores them along a variety of different routes. Through such means every trip has the potential of becoming a reconnaissance in force, and a way of discovering some new solution to the problem of getting from point A to point B, along with some insight about some places along the way that one may want to visit again. And it is these experiences that helps to enrich a life even as it enriches our knowledge, and can allow for the making of stories that can later be shared with others as well, perhaps others who have shared our journeys and explorations.