Country Accents

Vivian Howard Is Up Siri Creek

Gut feelings versus map apps: an unplanned showdown

A painting of a man wearing black standing on a cliff looking out over a foggy, grey city.

Illustration: JENNY KROIK

I don’t know if you have ever found yourself driving alone at night in an unfamiliar city without a phone—and therefore, without GPS—but I have, and it was a harrowing experience I’ll never forget. That evening laid bare my dulled sense of direction, my inability to follow road signs, and my absolute ignorance regarding how to use the compass my car features. I witnessed firsthand how crippled I become without technology’s crutch. The episode unsettled me, to say the least. 

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Picture it: Charlotte, North Carolina, where I was one of six chefs preparing a course as part of a ticketed dinner to support kids’ cancer research. My role was simple; what complicated matters was that I live clear across the state, four and a half hours east. All of the other chefs, save one, lived in Charlotte. In retrospect, my participation didn’t entirely make sense—except it’s hard to say no when the ask benefits kids with cancer.

Usually, for an out-of-town event like this, I would arrive at the venue four or five hours in advance, unpack and set up my mise en place, complete whatever prep I had left, and then go to my hotel room to freshen up and stare at the wall for a while before returning to the mosh pit of chefs, cause-driven volunteers, and hungry (but mostly thirsty) patrons who have shown up to support the mission, but also to have a good time.

That’s not what happened in Charlotte that day. Even with Apple’s Siri calling the shots, I got stuck in traffic and skidded into the venue at three for an event that started at six. I didn’t get the chance to change clothes or put on a fresh face. I did not stare at the wall in my hotel to calm my mind before the pandemonium of a three-hundred-person dinner.

As it turns out, I would never set foot in that prepaid room with my name on it. Instead, I unloaded my food and wheeled it to a commissary kitchen a football field from the actual venue. I was to prep there and then schlep my course on a dolly across a parking lot, where another chef and I would plate our dishes in a closet, essentially. It was, to put it lightly, chaos.

Even when the event supports a good cause, sprawling productions such as this one can be overwhelming and exhausting for the chefs involved. I wanted it to end before it began, and based on previous experience, I knew that as soon as dinner concluded, lubricated guests would want to chat with us. So after I served my course and said my piece explaining it onstage, I grabbed my backpack and ran out the back door toward the safety of my car. All I needed to do then was put the AC Hotel in Google Maps and I’d be on my way to staring at that long-awaited wall.

But. But…I couldn’t find my phone, and my car’s Bluetooth technology couldn’t detect it either. Let me back up: I’m not one of those people who have to have their phone on them at all times. I’m actually quite the opposite. I get a weird thrill when people can’t reach me, so the thought of one night without the pesky device was hardly a deal-breaker. So I had a choice: I could brave any drunk partygoers and retrace my harried path over the past few hours, or I could brave the streets and follow my instincts to my hotel bed, a bottle of wine, and some bad cable. I decided to go with my instincts.

I’ve lived most of my life in rural Eastern North Carolina, after all, in a place that until the mid-eighties didn’t even have road signs. Our address was Route 1, Box 333, Deep Run: a system and a number that told the mail carrier where to go but did little or nothing for the rest of us. As country people, we had to just kind of feel our way.

For instance, if my dad were to tell you how to get to Pink Hill from Deep Run, he would say, “Make a right at the fat lady store, then head to the bottom of the branch and veer left. When you get to the crossroads, take the one with the bad curve that killed Mr. Jimmy. If you pass the IGA, you’ve gone too far.” If I have the ability to make heads or tails out of that gobbledygook, surely, I thought, I should be able to find a brightly marked hotel. Plus, the other out-of-town chef, my close friend Cheetie Kumar, of Ajja in Raleigh, had shouted some directions at me as I fled the building. With those two thin foundations for success in place, I drove into the Charlotte streets with inflated confidence.

Sadly, an understanding of maps based on oral histories and a friend’s heartfelt attempt to get me home were no match for Charlotte’s traffic patterns in 2023. I made it less than a mile from the venue before I had to stop at a gas station to ask for directions—thanks to the darkness and the Queen City’s fascination with roundabouts, I couldn’t even backtrack. Feeling clever, I bought some gum and casually asked the store clerk if she could pull up directions to the AC on her phone. I would write them down, follow them to the nose, and I’d be wall-side before I knew it.

illustration: JENNY KROIK

The clerk obliged, and I was on my way. Or so I thought. Even though I had transcribed the directions and held them close to my face as I drove, I still managed to miss a turn or make a wrong one. It doesn’t matter where I went awry, really—the fact was, I was off course and without a device to reroute me.

I stopped at three—three—more gas stations that night in hopes of finding the hotel the cancer organization had graciously paid for. With each QuikTrip, Circle K, and 7-Eleven, I grew more flustered and much less sure. At the last station, on the verge of crying, I asked for landmarks rather than street names to guide me. Perhaps I could tap into my Route 1 sensibilities and follow a trail of identifiable businesses until I stumbled into the hotel.

Not a chance. Starbucks, Best Buy, and Taco Bell are landmarks everywhere—no doubt the fact that they populate every corner led me to getting lost once more. Desperate, tired, and oddly terrified, I parked on a corner at a dark Starbucks and came to terms with the truth. This odyssey was hopeless. My country intuition had failed me. My free hotel room would sit vacant for the night, and I would need to find a new one and pony up.

Thankfully, Charlotte does have one attribute I could spot through my tears—a downtown with tall buildings that shone like a beacon. In a silence that felt spiritual, I drove toward their light and checked myself into the first hotel I happened upon. When it comes to directions, I’ll never trust my gut again.