Ed Grisamore

Old-fashioned navigation takes driver into Macon’s past and down ‘Unpoplar’ street

Our new car came with one of those fancy navigation systems.

A lady’s voice tells us where to turn and what’s up ahead. I’m still in the “getting to know you” stage with her.

She doesn’t understand all my voice commands, perhaps because I have a bit of a drawl, and she’s not from around here. I find myself repeating almost everything, as if she’s hard of hearing, too.

I have had a navigation system for as long as I have been driving. They are called maps. I once kept them in the glove compartment and unfolded them across the bucket seats.

We purchased our first electronic GPS gadget in 2008. It was a Magellan Maestro, and I nicknamed her “Madge Ellen” … a good Southern, double name. (She never warmed up to it.)

We had a love/hate relationship. Evidently, she had been programmed to assume men are stubborn about asking for directions.

Madge Ellen was like having a permanent backseat driver attached to the cigarette lighter by an umbilical cord. She bossed me around. When I veered off course, it annoyed her to have to “recalculate” the route.

She was far from perfect. She didn’t know any of my favorite shortcuts or how to avoid potholes. Once, we went around a sharp curve on a mountain highway north of Clayton, and she ended up in a field. My wife and I never left the road, but Madge Ellen lost her bearing and wound up in a pasture.

Still, she got me where I was going most of the time, and I’m grateful for that. She steered me though Spaghetti Junction in Atlanta, down the streets of East Nashville and all the way to Chillicothe, Missouri, the “Home of Sliced Bread.’’

A generation of young people have always driven vehicles equipped with GPS. I wonder if they can read a map or have looked at an atlas somewhere other than their high school geography class.

I sometimes try to remember how I got around for more than two-thirds of my life without an electronic device on my dashboard.

For fun, I imagined stopping at a gas station in downtown Macon 50 years ago. I visualized pulling into the Saf-T-Oil at the corner of Walnut Street and Fifth Street (before it became Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). Bob Mullis was working that day, as he did for more than 60 years. I asked how to get to Wesleyan College.

Go down Broadway for two blocks until you see a tall building on the left with “JESUS CARES” in red letters on the roof. That’s the Macon Rescue Mission. Turn right on Poplar and head up the hill. You’ll drive past a couple of barber shops, furniture stores, liquor stores and a pool room. On the way, you’ll see Arvin’s Sporting Goods, Jake’s Shoe Shop and Hunt-Ragan Appliance.

When you pass City Hall, be sure to wave at Mayor Ronnie Thompson. At the top of the hill, you’ll reach two beautiful churches – St. Joseph’s and First Baptist. This is where it starts getting tricky. Poplar becomes “Unpoplar.’’ It changes its name to Washington Avenue. You’ll pass the Butler Boarding House on the right and, if you’re hungry, stop in for a home-cooked meal. If your car breaks down before you get to the Washington Library, you can stop by Capitol Cycle and trade in for a set of two wheels.

You will cross College Street at the post office, which is where the old Wesleyan College was before it burned six years ago. It gets complicated again because the name changes to Hardeman Avenue. You’ll drive by the oldest fire station in Macon and the Pig N’ Whistle restaurant, where two of Macon’s most famous musicians, Little Richard and Otis Redding, once worked as car hops.

After you go over the new Interstate 75, you’ll be on Vineville Avenue, guaranteed to be an adventure. You will drive past more pretty churches, houses and apartments. There will be sweet smells coming from Waldorf’s Pastry Shop, and you’ll see the oldest trees in Macon at the corner of Callaway Drive.

At the intersection at Vineville Baptist, you will cross a street where half is named after a Catholic priest (Pio Nono) and the other after a Methodist bishop (Pierce). You will roll by the Academy for the Blind, Hoyt’s Market, LaVista Restaurant, Chi Chester’s and the Piggly Wiggly. The city limits end at the Polar Bear Restaurant on the corner at Forest Hill, and local folks call everything past it the “Land Beyond the Polar Bear.’’

The street name changes again – for the fifth time – and you’ll be on Forsyth Road. You’ll see the Hephzibah Children’s Home on Breezy Hill. Cag’s Open Hearth Restaurant and Pinebrook Motel and Restaurant will be in view when you reach the bottom. It’s only a mile from there to Tucker Road and Wesleyan College.

Enjoy your ride. If you get lost, call me.

For some of you, that was more of a trip down memory lane than a detailed set of directions.

I assure you Madge Ellen never was wired for that much local knowledge.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.