I am someone who lives by routine, and I am routinely late. Each day I run for the van shuttle that takes residents of my apartment complex in the Washington, DC suburb of Alexandria to the nearby Metro station. The ride takes about 10 minutes, which means I have ten minutes to complete the arduous task of locating my Metro card inside my purse before I get to the station. That never happens, however. What does happen is I get right to the fare gate and start digging for my card while the commuter drones (of which I am one) get angry at me for holding up what should be a seamless entrée into the station. There is also usually a train approaching, which I catch a glimpse of as it speeds down the tracks taking with it my hopes of not being fired for egregious tardiness.
By now you might be thinking to yourself, “It’s just a train. Won’t another one be arriving in a few short minutes?” Sure, trains run pretty often during rush hour in DC. But the thing about living in DC—and perhaps all major metropolitan areas—is that minutes count. The the four minutes it takes for a new train to arrive is the difference between narrowly making it to work on time or having to make the walk of shame past one’s boss’s office, again.
Minutes also count in traffic, a reality that I was keenly aware of on the Friday of Mother’s Day weekend as I prepared to drive to North Carolina to spend the holiday with my family. My plan was to spend the morning catching up on some of the administrative tasks of life that I tend to ignore: emails in need of a response, bills in need of paying, dishes in need of washing. My goal that day was to leave at 2 p.m., the absolute latest that I could leave. Any time after that would leave me vulnerable to the traffic nightmare that ensues every afternoon on DC’s 95s—that being highways 395, 295, 495, and I-95.
So naturally as I cranked my car and hit the highway it was 3:06 p.m. Traffic. Not encouraging traffic. Not, “there’s probably an accident somewhere and all we have to do is get past it,” traffic. This was the traffic of DC with no root cause other than a bunch of people who decided to ignore the rules and start their journey at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon knowing full well the consequences of their actions. Which is why I couldn’t even get upset at my predicament. I, and I alone, had decided to test the will of traffic fate. So there I sat.
After nearly three hours and not even fifty miles traveled, I finally came upon an exit that would take me on a detour off of the main highway. Nearing dusk, I found myself on an unfamiliar two-lane route with a full four hours of driving ahead of me. Such a situation would normally make me highly irritated. But I was surprisingly Zen about the whole thing. Though the trip was taking a lot longer than I would have anticipated, I was at peace with it. Perhaps I was eased by the awesome radio luck I was having; I had come upon some epic road trip tunes by the likes of Journey, Phil Collins, and Sheila E. Or maybe it was the solace of having the road all to myself, zooming up and down the rolling hills, passing only a handful of cars for about an hour’s stretch. It also could have been how exceedingly green all the pastures, fields, and trees that made up the scenery of my detour appeared. My favorite moment was when I looked out of my window and saw the sun setting over the Blue Ridge Mountains. I rarely take in sunsets these days, probably because they happen as I’m underground on a train, in my office with no windows, or preoccupied by my smart phone. But in that moment I decided to pull over and fully take in the sun as it ended its day’s work.
These are all things that I never would have experienced had I stayed on the major highway. There, I would have paid attention to the tailgating car behind me that would have forced me to move to the right lane only to slow down and rest comfortably in my blind spot.
Main highways are full of annoyances that seemingly slow down progress to our destination. Detours, however, are full of surprises that make the longer trip worthwhile.
The instance reminded me of another detour in my life. At 21, I took a detour from college that landed me in Washington, DC. I spent a year serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer leading middle school students in a service-learning program, mentoring, and working as a teaching assistant in DC Public Schools. In high school when I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” I never would’ve imagined that I would need a detour from college. I predicted after four swift years I would enter into some notable and highly respected career that I hadn’t at that time determined but would certainly be impressive. Yet, a little over two years after my first day in college, I found myself lying on my bedroom floor listening to the slowest, most depressing music I could find in my CD collection. It was clear that a detour was in order.
I liken my experience in AmeriCorps to a yearlong summer camp for the disaffected, and I came to know an extremely eclectic group of people. Hippies, socialists, born-to-be politicians, accidental philosophers, stoners, one guy with long blond rocker hair we designated the white Lenny Kravitz, liberals, conservatives, sociology majors…you name it. We worked together during the day, socialized together at night, and because we had converged from all over the country, some of us lived together as well. We helped each other endure 9-11. We helped each other endure middle-schooler angst. We helped each other endure our own angst. It was the year I fell in love with art as I explored DC’s literary and poetry scenes. It was the year I fell in love with myself as I stopped worrying about what prefix social identity I belonged to. It was the year I met three women who became among my closest confidants. And it was a year that I stopped hurriedly making my way down a predictable path and simply enjoyed the rolling hills, green grass, and sunsets all around me.
It has been ten years since that detour and I’ll admit that I have been guilty of sometimes reverting back to the path of predictability. Thankfully, I have developed the ability to sense when a detour is needed. I never ignore the calling. Because while the trip might take longer and others will certainly arrive at their destinations before I do, only I will know the beauty of my sunset.