JULIA BAYLY

Modern technology can lead travelers down the wrong path

Julia Bayly
Julia Bayly
Posted Dec. 15, 2011, at 4:34 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 16, 2011, at 10:36 a.m.

Not long ago, a friend I’d not seen for years called to say she was in town and wanted to drop by. Now, she had not been to my house in close to two decades, but getting to Rusty Metal Farm really is pretty simple.

A couple of rights, one left and you’re at my driveway. In the winter it’s even easier — I’m the last house before the town stops plowing. If you hit the snow bank, you’ve gone about 20 feet too far.

Directions given and confirmed, I waited for my friend to show up.

Twenty minutes past her planned arrival time, I figured she was running late. Forty-five minutes later I feared I’d been stood up.

Then the phone rang.

My friend was lost somewhere on the back roads of the St. John Valley.

Turned out, instead of following my verbal instructions, she was relying on her smartphone’s built-in GPS technology which, at one point, directed her down a potato field access road.

We finally got her straightened out — after I went out looking for and found her — and had a pretty good laugh.

The whole episode has done nothing to bolster my confidence in 21st century navigation technology.

Don’t get me wrong — I am delighted such technology is available in modern travel, especially when I’m traveling by airplane, where instrumentation keeps planes on course and out of each other’s way.

I’m just not so sure personal GPS equipment is all it’s cracked up to be.

Just for fun the other day, before leaving the grocery store, I entered my address into my own smartphone’s GPS application and requested the shortest route home.

The device directed me to a house easily five miles before my own and announced I had arrived. All topography beyond that point was a vast, empty beyond-the-pale void.

No wonder my friend got lost.

My friend Kim had a similar experience when some of her family drove north to visit.

Despite repeated warnings to ignore their car’s GPS and instead rely on her detailed written instructions, they deferred to the satellite technology.

As a result, they ended up several miles down a dirt side road where they were then directed to turn down an ATV path, which — in the GPS’ defense — did ultimately pass by my friend’s house.

The real kicker came last week.

I was out feeding the Rusty Metal dogs when a car pulled up and a very lost and confused-looking driver got out.

His in-car GPS had led him to my house, never mind his actual destination was a different address on a completely different road.

The funny part was, he kept insisting the GPS was correct — as if somehow I was guilty of being in what his technology clearly stated was the correct spot.

Back when personal GPS equipment was still somewhat of a novelty, I traveled to Labrador with my friend Penny and her mother for a week at an isolated, lakeside cabin.

Accessible only by float plane, the cabin was well beyond the reach of standard cellphone technology. But in the event of an emergency, Penny’s brothers had chipped in to buy her a fancy satellite phone in case we needed to call for help.

In retrospect, we probably should have tested it before the pilot took off after dropping us on the beach.

For the entire week, each time we tuned the sat-phone on, all it did was bring up a welcome screen with the cheery message, “Make safety your first call.”

Not once over those seven days did it function to make any call — safety or otherwise.

A few years later, more modern satellite phone in hand, Penny and her family made another trip to the lakeside cabins.

Once there, she managed to make one phone call to me which went something along the lines, “We are fine … static … the bear … static … big … static … hanging around … static … tried to get into the cabin … static … at the outhouse … static.”

I really wish she had made safety, not me, her first call.

Turned out that, at the time, the satellites linking that particular phone to the rest of the world were only in line with her location for roughly two minutes out of every day.

Which is why I, Penny and Kim are huge fans of maps — good old folding travel maps and atlases.

Of course, if you live in Maine, the gold medal standard for all maps is the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer.

Who among us does not have several dog-eared copies of a DeLorme scattered about among vehicles, river boxes and bureau drawers?

Who can resist buying the shiny new ones when the Yarmouth-based company releases an updated version?

The company has expanded its coverage and offers similar volumes covering all 50 states, with outstanding maps from any Point A to Point B in the country.

If Marshall Dodge had owned a DeLorme Atlas back in the early 1970s, his famous comedic routine of “You cahn’t get theyah from heeah” may never have come to pass.

Of course, even with the best of maps and routing directions, I manage to get lost on an average of once every road trip.

But that’s okay — I’ve met some of the friendliest and most interesting folks by stopping to ask for directions.

Despite my propensity — or perhaps because of it — for getting lost, I’ve always been fascinated by navigation equipment like compasses, charts and sextants. I’ve often thought it would be fun to learn how to use those time-proven tools or how to read the stars to chart my path.

After all, those were the skills and tools used for centuries by early explorers long before there was such a thing as GPS.

A good thing, too. If my own pioneering ancestors had relied upon GPS technology as they crossed the Oregon Trail, they very well may have ended up in a northern Maine potato field.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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