• Chris OBrien

Atlas

By: Michele Popadich


The first time we used technology to navigate a road trip, my family and I were making a tense twelve-hour drive from Chicago to Richmond. My dad perched his phone next to the steering wheel and suction-cupped a GPS to the window which bobbed uncontrollably for the entire ride. He was skeptical about the recommended route - the twisted blue line glowing on the screen - but we continued to follow it, emptying boxes of graham cracker cookies and waterfalling popcorn into our mouths.


Many hours and stray popcorn kernels later, we unexpectedly found ourselves on a backcountry road. The lanes winded through a lush forest and tall prairie grass, with no houses or gas stations in sight. The natural undulation of the road ahead was beautiful, but even my primitive navigation skills (I had just gotten my driver’s license) could sense that it was astronomically out of the way. We pulled over and my dad finally took out the Atlas.


The Atlas used to be tucked in the back pocket of the passenger seat in my dad’s red minivan. During our family road trips when I was a kid, I’d have the Atlas open in my lap, and I’d look out the window and wonder how the seemingly straight road ahead corresponded to the tangled veins of the highway on a paper map. It looked so complex and intricate, all the roads which branched off main highways, introducing an infinite amount of possibilities to get to any single destination. “How long until we’re there?” I’d wonder. My parents would consult the giant pages on fast-moving roads and give me a rough approximation, give or take an hour. Even if we got lost, it felt like there was always time and always a way to get there. Somehow, we’d end up where we were meant to be, but I was never sure of how.


My mom and I stayed in the car while my dad and brother huffed over the directions to Richmond. My dad stood upright with hands on his hips. My brother slouched with his arms folded across his chest, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. As a family, we rarely fought. When we did, it felt like poison. And it seemed like we were fighting a lot lately.


“How long until we’re there?” I wondered. “Eight hours and fifty-six minutes,” my mom reported back. The precision the GPS dictated back to us was numbing. Any deviation from the recommended route became more infuriating as the arrival time continued to tick up.


I looked out the window and could see exactly how this road - spiraling infinitely in the dense green landscape ahead - corresponded to the loops my dad traced with his finger along the paper map. Still, we spent most of our time with our eyes pinned to a blue circle paused on an unsatisfyingly small cross-section of a larger map we could not see.


We were physically stopped on the side of the road, but we didn’t really stop. So

concerned with the time wasted, we never paused to acknowledge a deeper sense of misdirection. At the end of this trip, we would not be together. Richmond was where my brother had landed his first job as an analyst at a bank, despite his aspirations to become an architect. Richmond was where my parents and I would drive back from to begin packing up for my first year of college where I was going to study business despite my dreams of writing. Richmond was the city that my parents would associate their first years of living in an empty home. The cumulative distance between where we were going and where we wanted to be had become taut the longer we were on that road.


It took us nineteen hours to get to Richmond. We had abandoned our compassion for alternate routes for the promise of a precise arrival at a specific destination, which I expect we all felt that we were lacking. Our journey became grueling when we knew where we were at every moment and how long it would take to get there.


Ten years have passed, and life did indeed steer us in directions we never thought we’d go, with all its detours and backtracking. But I look back on those years and wonder how the tangled, misguided, and often misleading routes we each took landed us in this moment: my brother and I both went back to school to pursue architecture and creative writing, respectively. We both moved back to Chicago fifteen minutes away from each other and just a few miles south of our parents. Somehow, we all got where we were meant to be. I still wonder how.


Michele Popadich is a storyteller - in the traditional sense (she writes personal essays and participates in storytelling events around Chicago). She co-created Unsweetened, an anthology of her creative work and that of her peers. She self-published Uncharted, a book of poetry and photography after coming back from a road trip in Iceland. She has been published in Driftless, a Midwestern inspired biannual magazine. She created and maintains an Instagram account, Petit Poetry, which combines the visual and lyrical into a miniature poetic experience. And she also runs one of our favorite Instagram accounts - Here's a Card For That - in collaboration with Logan Lukacs (@logans_sketchbook). We look forward to running more of her essays, stories, and poetry on this site as well as Long Overdue Books.

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