Can this GPS aficionado do a low-tech road trip?

Becky Krystal/THE WASHINGTON POST - Bemis, W.Va., is about a four-hour drive from Washington, much of it on winding mountain roads.

I’m used to driving alone. Pittsburgh, the New River Gorge and Virginia Beach are just a few of the not-so-nearby places I’ve ventured to on my own. But now, on the long, winding road to Bemis, W.Va., I was acutely aware of my solitude.

I had turned off my GPS.

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The Road to Bemis


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The Washington Post sent two reporters to Bemis, West Virginia. One used a GPS, the other a printed map. Which would you choose? And where would you stop along the way?

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There was no chirpy voice to remind me of my next turn. No icon gliding along the animated map to mirror my progress in real time. Nothing to count down the time until I arrived at my destination.

It was . . . oddly refreshing.

I hadn’t always been so reliant on navigational devices. At my previous job, I’d grab a big beat-up atlas and toss it onto the passenger seat whenever I had to chase down a bank robbery or find a secluded fire station. That was way back in 2005. It didn’t take me long to decide that trying to consult the atlas while driving wasn’t a great idea. Then about a year later, as Google Maps caught on, I started plugging my route into the online mapping service and voila! Turn-by-turn instructions.

So when a generous uncle presented me with my first Garmin three years ago, I was grateful but not totally convinced. Would I use it? Could it really be that much better than my Google Maps printout?

Silly me.

It was navigation for dummies. Garmin had my back. She wouldn’t let me miss a turn. She helped me find the nearest Subway off U.S. 250 in western Virginia and that delightful detour to John Adams’s house in Quincy, Mass., on our way to Boston’s Logan airport.

We’d fight sometimes. I’m not sure we were ever quite the same after I ignored her commands to U-turn my way back into a Hampton Roads traffic jam that I’d bailed out of in favor of a different route.

Perhaps that’s why early in her too-short life, Ms. Garmin decided to cut off mid-sentence. “Turn right on — ” Silence.

When I bought my Droid X smartphone earlier this year, I’d found my new best co-pilot. With navigation-enabled Google Maps already installed, it lifted my confidence level to an all-time high. Too high, really.

The problem is that while my phone uses a satellite connection to pinpoint location, it relies on a 3G signal to retrieve directions via Google Maps, which became all too clear after I left for a recent trip to Pennsylvania without my in-case-of-emergency road map. I also ended up without a signal on my phone. I could only backtrack for so long out of the park I’d visited. There was about a half hour of not so quiet desperation until I emerged from the mountainous terrain and waited in a parking lot to regain my Internet connection.

The situation would be exactly the opposite on my journey to Bemis. I’d been assigned the challenge of making the approximately four-hour drive without the help of my GPS. The only tools I could use were paper maps and a little intuition. Could my technology-addled brain get me there and back?

I girded myself with not just one, but two road maps — you know, those accordion-style monstrosities that you never seem to be able to fold back into their original configuration — and compared them. Both the official state highway map and the AAA-issued one showed Bemis perched on a dead-end road on the western edge of the Monongahela National Forest. Great. But how to get there? Following Highway 55 west from the Virginia border wouldn’t be too bad. It was the last few steps that left me scratching my head as I pored over the maps.

In general, the AAA map was more detailed and easier to read. There was one exception, though, when it came to the last few turns to Bemis. The state map showed two north-south roads intersecting with the east-west road into town. The AAA map only had one of them. Surely the state knew its own roads better, right? Still, I didn’t want to take the risk. I stuck with the road that appeared on both.

After carefully plotting my route, I realized that the maps wouldn’t actually be that practical once I set off. I wouldn’t be able to wrestle them into submission while I had my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road. So I typed up my directions in large font — easy to read quickly — and tucked the sheet of paper away with the maps.

The preparation paid off. I felt relaxed. Sometimes, unwisely, I leave for a trip without even checking my route, putting my full faith in the GPS, an unnerving and inexplicably frequent departure from my Type-A planner personality. There were no surprises this time, no second-guessing the technology. I could crank up the stereo without worrying about missing the audio instructions. The pressure of time evaporated; there was no way to know how many minutes I was bleeding behind a line of leisurely bikers.

Out of habit, however, I’d mounted my phone on the windshield. Just in case. Even though it wasn’t showing me anything, I couldn’t stop glancing at it.

After a flawless 3 1/2 hours, I almost missed my second-to-last turn, onto County Road 27, a.k.a. Glady Road. The sign was practically impossible to see from the road, but having scoured the map, I knew to take a left as soon as I came across the marker for Alpena.

On road trips when we were kids, my brother used to ask, “Are we on the map?” It was his way of asking whether — and when — we would get to wherever we were headed. Those last 12 miles to Bemis had me wondering the same thing. With every queasy dip and turn in the road, the anticipation of arriving grew. I passed people working in their gardens, closed-up cabins and apple trees bowed with blushing fruit.

Soon enough, I’d slipped into the sylvan landscape of Bemis. With glee, I jumped out of the car and snapped a picture the second I spied the sign declaring the spot.

I was definitely on the map. And now, perhaps, into it as well.

 
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