GPS: This girl’s positioning system


Postcard sent in 1915 from Bemis W. Va, provided by Steve Bodkins, author of "Bemis & Glady West Virginia: A History of Two Mountain Towns" (courtesy of Steve Bodkins)
August 19, 2011

We weren’t even clear of Washington when the bickering began.

She: “Take the exit right, then keep right.”

Me: That’s not correct. We need to get onto Route 66, up ahead.

She: “Keep right, then keep left.”

Me: What the . . . ? You’re putting us on Route 50? To go to West Virginia? Where did you learn to navigate, lady, inside a cardboard box?

Scarcely into the 219-mile drive to Bemis, W.Va., relations between the driver (moi) and the co-pilot (a TomTom GPS unit) had started to deteriorate. I didn’t trust her judgment, and she didn’t care for my ineptitude at following her directions. At this rate — after nearly an hour, we were still rambling around the outskirts of Washington — we’d never make it to the teeny mountain town, much less dominate the Travel section drive-off between the modern-day GPS and the old-fashioned road map. If we couldn’t find our way out of Washington, how would we ever survive the winding lanes and potentially spotty satellite service of West Virginia?

“At the end of the road, turn right,” Little Miss GPS said somewhat cryptically, after she had led us into the parking lot of the Fairfax County Public Library. I defied her, opting to pull a U-turn rather than drive onto the grass, as she recommended.

This GPS-controlled foray was my first. Typically, my method of navigation is a combination of Google Maps printouts and shouting at strangers. When the paper trail fails me, which it often does, I yell for help at people walking by, idling at red lights, unloading cases of beer — really anyone who looks like they know their right from their left.

Of course, this arbitrary technique is not the most efficient or scientific. Common citizens, for the most part, are good at pointing and drawing chicken-scratch maps, but fall below average when pressed to recall exact street names and distances. Once, in Alexandria, I was so frustrated by the townsfolk, who had repeatedly sent me to the wrong end of a barricaded street, that I asked a mailman if I could please follow him to the location. Thankfully, it was on his route.

In theory, I’m not against GPS, though I do have my concerns. Such as that I might stare at the screen a second too long and ram into a tree. Or that the gadget hasn’t been loaded with the most current data and will dump me onto a circuitous, outdated route. Or, scariest of all, that the battery will run out, and I’ll be stranded alone with a useless piece of technology incapable of administering comfort.

“Keep left and take the highway,” said my dashboard friend as I triumphantly cruised onto Interstate 66.

(A suggestion to GPS engineers: Maybe you should program the machine to say, “Hooray, you did it!” after a successful turn. The boost would do wonders for the driver’s self-confidence.)

The GPS and I got along famously when we had nowhere to go but straight ahead. For 64 miles, we flew along I-66 with the car windows rolled down and the tunes cranked up. (Even at 100 percent volume, though, she still spoke as if she were in church. To clearly hear her, I’d have to close the windows and mute the tunes.) On a long stretch of Virginia highway, she opened her virtual mouth only once, when I tried to sneak in a rest stop.

“Turn around when possible, then turn left,” she urged me near Front Royal. “Turn around when possible, then turn left.”

Since she wouldn’t listen to reason — we desperately needed gas and a soda pop — I unplugged her.

I was a quick study, and an even quicker adapter. TomSquared guided by increments, for instance, and wouldn’t start vocalizing the next move until we were only a few hundred yards from the turn. I tried to decipher the difference between 500 and 300 yards but failed: I ended up blowing by a lot of exits even after dangerously crossing multiple lanes of traffic. In an act of self-preservation, I started glancing at the image on the screen, following the arrow as if it were my own advance team.

Another crucial lesson: Don’t expect the voice to always be there for you. On Route 55, the mystery woman with the slight Mandarin accent suddenly disappeared.

“Take the exit right and . . .”

Silence.

I sat at a fork in the road, waiting for her speech to return. I crept up a little, then a little more, listening intently for her peep.

“ . . . and go right.”

But I kid my GPS. We both know how much I valued her presence, especially at the most vital moments. On the highway through Lost City, W.Va., for example, the skies released a torrent of rain as heavy as the Iguazu Falls. The road signs blurred. Squinting out the windshield, I felt as I were driving a submarine wearing a foggy scuba mask. The GPS, my heroine, guided me through the storm. She managed the navigation so that I could focus on the precarious conditions.

Yet she flaked on me as well, exposing gaps in her knowledge. Near Moorefield, the GPS instructed me to leave Route 55 and take bumpkin roads to Route 55. Yes, I will say that again: She wanted me to get off the highway only to get back on the same highway. The reason for this wacky instruction: The gadget didn’t recognize the newly built section of highway. She was trying to prevent me from driving on what she gathered was a field. If she had eyes, she would have known better.

Praise the satellites: The GPS made no mistakes on the final leg of the journey. Like pros, we passed through Petersburg and past Seneca Rocks and took the sharp left onto Glady Road. She didn’t even protest when I stopped to take a photo of two fawns gamboling along the side of the road.

I was grateful for the GPS on Bemis Road, which curved like a serpent. In addition to paltry signage (just some tiny lettering at the entrance), I didn’t pass any other cars, thereby eliminating my default navigational technique of flagging down a good Samaritan. Nor did I notice any inhabitants other than livestock. And as we all know, cows have a woeful sense of direction.

Now nearing our fifth hour together, we ascended the mountain road in comfortable silence. The GPS had completed the task, I mused on the last 1.8 miles, but not impeccably. I couldn’t ignore the miscues. However, by taking over the navigation, she had allowed me to minimize my responsibilities in the car and concentrate on what mattered — safety and singing. After this trip, I think I’d like to introduce her to the map and see how the two get along.

At 600 yards, she started the countdown.

“You have reached your destination,” my GPS announced, before telling me to turn around when possible.

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