One of the more obvious differences I faced when I first moved over here – and hell, when I was making my yearly visits, too – was the whole “driving on the opposite side of the road” factor.
In the handful of instances where I actually drove in the U.S. on vacation – 2010, for the amusement of a friend, and in 2013 out of sheer necessity for the Rhode Island Seafood Festival, where I had to help return various rental vehicles I wasn’t technically licensed to drive – it was a pretty nerve-wracking experience.
When you drive exclusively on the left side of the road and right side of the car for 28 years, it’s tough to know which shoulder to look over, where your blind spots are, and how much vehicle you have on the opposite side of you.
But those aren’t the only factor that I’ve had to consider – the roads themselves are entirely different beasts as well.
I was lucky enough to be able to cut my permanent-driving-in-the-U.S. teeth here in Augusta, which (as I may have mentioned once or twice before) isn’t a huge town.
There isn’t a ton of traffic, most of the streets are pretty wide and clearly marked (except in winter, when the salt and sand erodes the lane markings off the blacktop – fun!) and most Mainers don’t seem to be in too huge of a hurry to get places, so it’s not like I constantly have tailgaters up my ass or people leaning on the horn if I miss the traffic light going green by a couple of seconds.
And a brief aside to my main theme, on the subject of friendly Mainers, here’s another observation for you eager readers out there. This has pleasantly surprised me for as long as I’ve been here, including my days of walking everywhere during the winter.
It’s obvious that “give way to pedestrians” is going to be a pretty common road rule around the world, but nowhere have I seen it more rigorously obeyed than here in Maine. I’ll be standing on the corner, patiently waiting for an opening in traffic so I can cross the street, and cars will actively slow to a stop wherever they are to let me across. This isn’t at a designated crosswalk, or at a stop sign. People will stop their journeys to wherever just to let some asshole cross the main road so he can get to the bar 15 seconds sooner.
They’ll also overcorrect their course to make sure I have plenty of room walking on the shoulder of the road if there’s no sidewalk (which is probably 50 percent of the time on my most-walked routes), and give me the courtesy wave while they do so. There’s “obeying the law” and then there’s going out of your way to make sure I’m safe. Amazing.
Alright, back to the driving thing. As for sitting on the left side of the car, I’ve adjusted pretty well to that, too. I’ve only walked around to the passenger side once before correcting myself, and subconsciously I’ll reach to my left rather than my right to turn the volume up on the stereo, but I’m pretty comfortable (figuratively, if not spinally) with the physical act of driving now.
But, as any of my handful of previous passengers can attest, navigation still isn’t my strongest suit. I think the reasons behind this are twofold, and they’re things that I noticed about the U.S. many visits ago.
Firstly, there’s a much larger prevalence in the use of the compass points – North, South, East and West – here than there is at home. Your GPS or Google Maps will tell you to “head east on X road.” A lot of the cars I’ve been in have actual LED displays showing which direction you’re traveling in. Sadly, the Subaru doesn’t.
Thankfully this isn’t too confusing in Augusta, given the Kennebec River runs north to south through town and so it’s easy to figure out which way’s which. If you’re driving away from the river, you’re heading west. Makes sense right?
If I’d ended up having to learn to drive in a landlocked city with no coastline to point out north and south though, or in a place where there’s no always-visible landmark to use as a point of reference (i.e. the Rocky Mountains in Denver), I have the feeling I’d have been doing a lot more U-turns.
The other thing that’s been hard to wrap my head around (apart from street signs, wiseguy) is the naming – or, I should say, numbering – conventions. Even when I was out in Denver last fall, it would boggle my mind when the friends I was staying with would talk amongst themselves about what route to take to get somewhere. “Well, we can just take 25 north to 36 and get to Boulder that way.”
What the hell are you guys talking about? Moreover, how do you remember all these numbers? (For reference, 25 is an Interstate freeway while 36 is a U.S. Route. They’re funded, maintained and signed differently. There are also state highways. See what I mean?)
The same applies here in Maine. Interstate 95 is the main corridor running along the east coast all the way from Florida to where Vacationland and Canada meet. There’s also a stretch called I-295 which runs from West Gardiner all the way down to Scarborough, which is kinda a shortcut bypassing a longer bit of 95.
There are also a handful of U.S. and state highways, most (I think) of which have names as well as number designations. For instance, I live on State Street (because it’s where the State House is, duh), but that’s also U.S. Route 201.
Western Avenue, the main drag through Augusta’s west side, is U.S. Route 202. And also State Route 100, 11 and 17 at various points. And as much as I try to avoid cursing in these here pages, I have no fucking idea why. I’m sure there’s a good reason, maybe, but I can’t get my brain wrapped around it. And you should hear it when Google Maps’ turn-by-turn navigation recites the name of that particular carriageway – it rattles off every designation. JUST TELL ME WHICH STREET ALREADY.
State Route 17 takes you east to the coast, where you intersect U.S Route 1 which runs along the coastline. Last weekend, as I was heading to Boothbay Harbor for the first time, I knew I had to stay on State Route 27. But then I scared the hell out of myself when I saw 27 go one way and 127 go another, and I momentarily forgot which one I was supposed to be taking. DON’T WORRY GUYS, I GOT IT THOUGH.
You can see my conundrum, right? It’s been nearly a decade since I left university, and I’ve been in the media for more than seven years, but I still like to make the shitty joke that I got into this business so I didn’t have to use numbers. I’m woeful at anything more involved than the simplest of arithmetic and, while working out road number designations involves no calculating, I still can’t juggle them worth a damn.
And realistically, I know that a lot of major roads back home do have numerical designations too. But thinking about it, during a discussion with my friend Heidi when she came to visit, I don’t know any of them really. The main one I’d use, to drive from Brisbane to the Gold Coast, is the M3, but I’d always called it the Pacific Highway and never really paid attention to whatever the number was. Looking at the map now, there are a TON of numbered roads. One that I used to drive to get to an old girlfriend’s place seems to be Route 22 on the map, but I’ve only ever known it as Old Cleveland Road. The more you know, I guess?
Easily twice or three times a week, something in a story prompts a discussion between my coworkers about a particular street on which some crime, or accident, or other incident occurs. My first reaction is to check Google Maps, which does generally bring up the corresponding street name, but the conversation quickly moves over my head to, “I think that’s 137, right?” Yep, you’ve lost me. It would take me literally dozens of years to become familiar with the spiderweb of road numbers around here.
Let’s just hope for a dozen months being enough time to adjust, eh?