Last month I spent a week in Santa Fe, one of my favorite places to visit, yet also one of the most confusing towns I ever drive in. I must be getting smarter about it though, since on this trip I never got lost more than twice any one day.
It’s obvious to me that early Santa Fe street planning, assuming there was any, was dominated by free-spirited hippies rather than actual traffic engineers. There are only two major roads in Santa Fe that pretend to follow cardinal directions. St. Francis goes mostly north-south, and St. Michael goes sort of east-west. All other roads meander haphazardly. Even Interstate 25, the one that bisects the United States from El Paso, Texas, to northern Wyoming actually runs east-west along the southern part of Santa Fe.
I used to drive around Santa Fe with a map on my lap and a phone book beside me, and whenever I got lost I pulled over, looked up the address of the business I was in front of, cross referenced it to the map, and learned how far off my plan I had drifted. Now I use the navigation system on my phone, usually Google Maps, and the firm but sweet-voiced woman who lives inside the app tells me when and where to turn, so I get lost only half of my trips instead of all my trips.
However, I miss having a city-map-sized view. I need a big picture to understand where I am, and navigation systems provide only real-time fine-grained detailed information. I’ve traded knowing my place in the world for not getting lost, which pleases anyone riding with me, but I’m not convinced my life is better for it.
There might be another aspect to getting lost that I’m forgetting. Sometimes, when we set out on a journey, we don’t really know where we’re going until we get there, or what we’re searching for until we find it. Paul Myers wrote, “Straight-line thinking, even in its most benign state, is a world without the mystery, the danger, and the wide boundaries of love.” (Rooster in the Cathedral)
I’ve learned to turn out-of-town trips, like my week in Santa Fe, into retreats – a deliberate step away from the details of everyday life, a chance to refocus on the bigger view. When I spend most of my time alone, my brain changes. When my pace and place change, I think new thoughts. I come back home with fresh to-do lists and observations, often based on ordinary details I’d’ve ignored or passed over at home.
In my archives I still have a rose-colored paper place mat with scalloped edges, from a restaurant in Farmington, NM, from an engineering workshop in 1998. I was fresh from a lecture about coal gas completions, which I followed with a run along the Anima River, and my brain was firing off ideas like a string of Black Cats. On that place mat I wrote ideas and plans that still alter my life trajectory even today, twenty years later.
I need, I crave, these frequent pullbacks from my normal days. Whether in Santa Fe, or Dallas, or the Guadalupe Mountains, they settle my thoughts and replace old with new. The provide the big picture I need and keep me from losing my way.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32