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Finding a way


Major League Baseball Suspends Spring Training Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I am old enough that I remember a time pre-smartphones (that I remember when we called them smartphones!), pre-wifi, pre-streaming, pre-internet, even, including the dial-up that hogged the home phone line (landline phones, another dinosaur), necessitating a balance between logging on to gain assistance with homework or check chatrooms—everyone boiled down to three letters, A/S/L?—and keeping the line free in case your friends called, or the person you hoped might call, but could always rationalize had called while you were online, you probably just missed it. (Maybe one of the best things about the 90s was no one got left on read.)

But for everything the modern age has gifted us, the thing I marvel over the most is navigation apps. I remember when I got my driver’s license, feeling like the whole city was spread before me but unsure how to prod the boundaries of my home-to-school routine, and my mother handing me a fat blue book: the Thomas Guide to Seattle. We used the map book so often we had a car copy and a home copy, my mother carefully tracing out a route to a new doctor’s office or park or historical site; wherever we needed or wanted to go, she would create turn-by-turn directions, copied on an index card with her right hand while her left flipped pages in the guide, one elegant finger tracing the ideal route. She taught me to cross-reference with the car copy as soon as I could read, and I became the navigator, a useful position considering my father’s compromised eyesight and general dislike of leaving the house. We could go anywhere, my mom and I, as long as we had our Thomas Guide.

Every time I visit Arizona to see baseball, I don’t take my navigation app for granted. I get in the rental car, punch in an address, and go wherever the directions tell me. There’s no need for a co-pilot hunched over a fat blue book, no need for index cards written out days in advance. A cool tone announces every turn, and calmly reroutes when mistakes are made. The only limit is on the mileage I’m willing to put on the rental car. It’s the same sense of openness, of limitless possibility, I felt when the great state of Washington pressed a piece of plastic into my hand that declared I was qualified to operate a motor vehicle.

But what do you do with limitless possibility when the options themselves are limited? Over the four days I was in Arizona, things became exponentially limited. First it was the rain, canceling practices and curtailing games; then, as understanding of the potential impact of coronavirus spread, things began to shutter quickly. I changed my flight—again, the power of internet everywhere—and flew home as soon as it was announced spring training was canceled. But before that I spent a day driving aimlessly from location to location, checking to see if the day’s game was canceled (it was), poking destinations into the navigation app just to see how long it would take me to get there, going wherever looked open and cool. Rerouting, and oh boy were we, rerouting.

COVID-19 isn’t my first time with a massive crisis; I’m old enough that I was in college during 9/11, and so remember it as an adult, by which I mean someone who could drive during it. And since driving is the way I experience the world, that’s what I did; in the afternoon of September 11th, after consuming everything I felt I needed to on the basic cable channels we got in college, I fired up my 1985 Mazda GLC and went to Sonic for a slushie (blue raspberry), then drove to a nearby park—which I found with the Thomas Guide to Virginia my mom had given me as a graduation gift. I was rerouting harder than I ever had, but I had that fat blue book and the mint-green blocks on the map that meant park, and this one had a small clear creek running through it where I kicked my feet in the fresh cold water, drinking my slushie and watching some preschool kids on a field trip pick up rocks and bring them back to an incredibly patient teacher, who marveled over each one. All of us at that park probably knew what was happening, but no one spoke of it there by the clear creek, and none of us had phones that would have given us turn-by-turn directions there, sure, but also would have made it impossible to look away from what was happening, this new road we were all on, the sudden shrinking of our world.

When I got back to the dorms I turned on the TV, looking for comfort, but nothing was showing except the news, the grim updating of the death toll creeping, hourly, upwards. The world felt small then in a way I hadn’t known it to be, not since before I was sixteen and clutching my driver’s license in one hand and my very own Thomas Guide in the other; small in a way that feels eerily familiar as I scroll Twitter for updates and watch the lights blink out on bars and restaurants and movie theatres and arenas across the country.

At the last game I will have attended for who knows how long, I drove my rental car into a parking lot with no attendants, went through the metal detector and tucked my ticket back into my pocket, as there was no one to scan it. I sat alone but where I wanted in the rain-soaked park and watched the Mariners dispatch the Padres in a game that was called after seven innings, then trickled out with the hundred or so fans who had also stuck it through on a cold and rainy night in the desert. I hope I appreciated it enough. I know I will spend the next several months—these months we will spend rerouting—wondering if I did.