GPS units make travel interesting

Posted Aug. 29, 2010, at 10:17 p.m.

Despite having a GPS in our car and on my iPhone, Dustin and I still manage to get lost. (Side note: Never let your spouse convince you he needs a GPS before he can leave for deployment on an aircraft carrier. He might be under the impression that he will have some sort of control over which direction the ship takes, but he is mistaken. Get him a Nintendo DS instead.)

Basically, there are two types of people when it comes to GPS. There are those who distrust the machine at every turn: “It says, ‘Turn left on State Street,’ and I see State Street on my left, but I’m not sure. I think I’ll go up a few blocks and find a different State Street.” Then there are those who will follow the GPS like the Holy Grail through a bamboo forest, if that’s what the device suggests, just to get to the grocery store: “The GPS says, ‘Turn left on State Street,’ and all I see is a curb and an office building, but what the heck, I think I’ll turn left.”

Dustin is the first kind of person. I am like the second. This makes for interesting car trips.

GPS (always spoken with a British accent because that’s the way Owen likes it): “In 400 yards, turn right, and then turn left.”

Dustin: “Why would it tell us to turn right and then left? I think I’ll go left and then turn right instead.”

Me: “I think we should do what the GPS tells us to do.”

Dustin: “But there’s a lake to our right, Sarah.”

Me: “Well, maybe it knows something we don’t.”

There are many times when I am sure the next words out of our British-sounding GPS guide will be, “I think the 3-year-old who just wet his trousers in the back seat could drive better than you nitwits.”

Yet we have seen many parts of the country we otherwise might never have without our unique relationships with the GPS. I grew up near Norfolk, Va., and for the 20 or so years I lived there, I never drove through some of the seedier inner-city neighborhoods. However, because I will follow my GPS to the ends of the Earth, two years ago I found myself rolling through Norfolk’s most notorious street in my mom’s shiny Ford Edge. The people on the curb — most of them teenagers with their pants hanging down — smirked, and it occurred to me that since the inception and widespread use of GPS, they must have grown used to seeing “outsiders” in their formerly, and legendarily, off-limits neighborhoods. I wondered whether they looked at my car and said, “Must be another GPS.”

Last week, Dustin and I, together with my brother, Van, and sister-in-law, Kelly, who were visiting from Virginia, “explored” (code for we got lost) a new area around Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. Here was the problem: When the device asked for a destination, we gave it “Mount Katahdin.” Now, Mount Katahdin is a very large mountain, and it isn’t passable by car. But the GPS lady, God bless her British heart, did the best she could before we realized the mistake.

First we were driving up Interstate 95. All good so far. Next we exited at the town of Millinocket. Still good. Eventually we merged onto the famed Golden Road, where the local logging industry made its wealth. This is where the GPS lady did us wrong. We followed the Golden Road for many miles, deep into the woods of northern Maine, until the road became gravel and dirt. When the GPS said, “In one-half mile, turn right,” we looked for a road that we hoped would be the entrance to Baxter State Park. Instead we found a barely cleared back-forest trail, and because I was in the driver’s seat, we turned onto it anyway. The minivan snapped tree limbs and catapulted rocks as we bounced along the rugged pathway. Van and Kelly had hoped to see a moose, but I’m sure all the animal kingdom ran when they saw us coming: “Crikey! This one’s coming through in a minivan!”

When we realized the GPS was trying to take us to the summit of Mount Katahdin, by way of circling the base first, we stopped to look at a good old paper map. We were on the other side of the mountain from Baxter State Park.

That night, when I turned on my computer, I saw the Web page that I last had visited the morning before our trek. It was the Baxter State Park “Directions” page. I scrolled down and found something I should have read 12 hours earlier:

“Commercial navigation units are not effective for navigating to the Park. Visitors have had unpleasant, time-consuming and expensive experiences using GPS units to navigate to the Park. Our headquarters address is 64 Balsam Drive, Millinocket, Maine 04462. Headquarters is 18 miles from the South Park Entrance at Togue Pond Gate and over 60 miles from the North Entrance at Matagamon Gate.”

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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