I have known it to occasionally make a slight mistake, but, yes, overall, it is helpful to have a navigator onboard. Enjoy!!
Following an Electronic Voice Through the Back Roads of Kansas
I learned to drive in a state where the roads are laid out in a square-mile grid. The town I learned to drive in was laid out in a grid too, except for a single, exotic, curving street. The landscape itself was a compass of sorts, and nearly all the adults I knew — especially the farmers — spoke of it that way. As a result, I grew up with a keen sense of direction, which is a liability only when I actually get lost. That happens once or twice a year, usually in the mildew hollows of eastern Connecticut and usually when my wife and I are already late for dinner. I get angry at myself for being lost. My wife gets angry at me for getting angry. The only solution is to get found.
Recently, I rented a car in Kansas, a state that, in the eastern sections at least, is less gridlike than it looks. I planned to do a lot of back-road driving, but I didn’t have time to print up a stack of Google maps, and I didn’t have a Kansas Gazetteer either. So, on a whim, I asked for a car with a G.P.S. guidance system. I knew all about the technology behind G.P.S. — the array of satellites overhead, the tracking stations, the reliance on minute differences in time to calculate position. I own an old G.P.S. that thinks the world is a blank gray slate on which you can trace your footsteps. But I had never used one of the new generation of automotive navigation tools, which include a database of detailed road maps. Now that I have, I’m not sure I’ll ever leave home without one.
The young woman at the rental counter gave me a map and directions to my destination — a small town a couple of hours southeast. The G.P.S. gave me better, clearer directions for a faster route. It steered me everywhere I wanted to go and returned me safely — four days later — to the rental lot at Kansas City International Airport. Only once did it offer to waylay me — it seemed to think a cemetery driveway was a real road — and only once did I drive off the edge of its known universe, when I took a dirt two-track across open range. The device worked perfectly. It never lost its temper. It calmly announced the next turn just as I was beginning to wonder where it might be. Its sense of direction was keener than my own, which is why I spent four days brooding about being reoriented in a world I thought I knew.
Navigating with maps is all about mental projection, trying to envision what lies ahead. You drive through the countryside feeling your way, so to speak, watching out for the markers that signal your next move. I love to read maps because it takes so much imagination to turn them into an internal landscape that holds up on the road. But I had never noticed how much effort I put into it — how it felt to drive in a state of constant geographical alertness — until I was able to do without it. I entered a destination, the G.P.S. calculated the route, and it took me nearly a hundred miles — driving past fields of milo and brittle corn — to realize that what I was feeling was a strange sense of un-anticipation.
I felt as though as I were shrinking somehow, as though my mental tentacles were retracting.
If you spend a lot of time reading maps, you can get lost but have a very good idea where you are. You have a feel for the lay of the land because you’ve gone over it in your mind in advance. The G.P.S. is just the opposite. You can know exactly where you are without knowing where you are. The arrow on the screen is you — precise to within a few meters — but where that arrow is in the world at large can be hard to picture. And yet the reverse is true, too. As I drove across Kansas, the G.P.S. offered me the name of every road I passed and the names of the roads that intersected those roads. There was no longer any such thing as the blithe anonymity of an unfamiliar landscape. I felt that the earth had been well and truly surveyed.
Again and again, I turned off the calculated route — following my nose across country — and the G.P.S. patiently rearranged its plans. Now and then I heard it say, “Make a legal U-turn at the first opportunity,” and I wondered if I was hearing a sigh of defeat in its crisp, female voice. I set out one morning for a nearly vanished Kansas town. “You have arrived!” said the G.P.S., without irony, as we drove down the tumbleweed streets of our destination.
We fought only once, in Emporia. We were leaving the surface road and picking up the Kansas Turnpike. The instructions I heard flatly contradicted my sense of where we were, so I ignored them and found myself heading west, toward Salina, instead of northeast, toward Lawrence. It was a humbling experience. I stopped for coffee. When I started the car, the G.P.S. said, “Resume?” Not a hint of told-you-so in its voice. I said yes, and let it lead me home.