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Directions

09/28/05 12:00AM By Stephanie Montgomery

(HOST) As a child, commentator Stephanie Montgomery grew up listening in on the party line when her mom wasn't looking. She still misses getting the news firsthand. Here she regrets another loss to communities as country life yields up ever more of its inefficient but colorful ways.


(MONTGOMERY) When the technician called from Manchester, NH to schedule an appointment to replace my modem, I offered directions to our house.

Naw, he said. I don't need em. I got a computer map.

Thirty minutes after he should have arrived, he called sounding glum. Where are you? I don't know. Surry, maybe? I told him to look out the window and tell me what he saw. He reported a swift turn in a river and overhanging, closely spaced trees. I told him to go another mile, turn right and then just after the small red house with the huge maple out front - left. Another left at the yellow house and - well, you get the idea. His internet directions had taken him on a direct route for a crow but one that amounted to a wild goose chase for a car traveling East-West in northern New England.

An oral tradition has all but vanished from our rural countryside. I remember when out-of-towners expected to get lost and local people expected to give directions.

Travelers would stop to ask a farmer or a woman hanging out her wash how to find a village, church, or fair. The directions were not always easy to follow because they depended on landmarks, such as the old Marsh place where the barn burnt down last winter. Old timers regaled their friends with tales of the ignorance and simpli- city of travelers. Travelers went home with maple syrup and anecdotes about the ignorance and simplicity of farm folks.

Still, it was friendly enough, a purely human form of social intercourse. Now we have on-line maps and directions and, of course, the cell phone. And I say more's the pity.

The arrival of street signs on forest roads brought conversations over the backsides of cows and wet laundry to an abrupt halt. I remember returning to Vermont after many years away and staring with disbelief at a well-marked crossroads in the woods. Exotic and intrusive, citified markers had come to the country. The same deed made it possible to replace our dear old Rural Route system with 911 street numbers. Everybody got an address and forgot the old landmarks. An ambulance could find any house, but the old romance of riding the roads fell away.

Then, a few years ago, the Boston Globe sent foliage seekers looking for the Putney Mountain Road. As lovely as it is rugged, descending steeply into South Newfane, this road is also hard to find. Everybody in town got back into the game, and stories circulated for weeks about the leaf-peepers who couldn't tell a rise from a hill, a fork from a left hand turn, or a white house from one that used to be blue. Locals enjoyed a brief renaissance of swapping flatlander stories down at the General Store. I hung out over coffee just to listen, and alongside every joke I heard again that good feeling, that simple warmth, that comes of doing a kindness for a stranger.

I'm Stephanie Montgomery of Walpole, NH.

Stephanie Montgomery is the Director of Memoir Cafe, an online writing service for women. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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