Thursday, June 7

In Provisional Praise of the GPS

Few things get me through a frigid Midwest winter’s night like curling up with an atlas and dreaming about fun roads to travel come springtime. Many afternoons I’ve napped on the sofa with my arms embracing an atlas with a regional map keeping company nearby. I love maps and the sensory experience maps generate while tracing my fingers along the tiny colored dots that symbolize a scenic route. For me, this tactile experience is dynamic, interactive and often directs me to research a place or a quirky city name I come across. Also, atlases and maps are additive, one leads to the purchase of another one.

So why did I purchase a GPS last year? And, why did it take me a full year to decide finally to try the contraption?

I used the GPS a couple of times last year--mostly as an expensive compass. I never mounted the GPS--out of sight, out of mind. When I did take it with me, I stuffed in my tank bag. The GPS set up looked tedious and required more attention than I cared to give it. The extra and costly topo map I purchased lacked the turn-by-turn direct route that I later regretted not purchasing. I learned to fiddle with the buttons and settings in the most basic way. The mapping software—at first-- seemed unnecessarily complicated. The wealth of free mapping tool available made dealing with the GPS software an unpleasant experience to say the least. This lack of immediate access to the GPS’s features created a barrier between the device and me. Turn to any page of an atlas and in a flash, parts of the world open before your eyes—instantly you are transported to place after place.

Touching and perusing a map gives me the same feeling as writing in longhand (versus drafting on the computer). Sliding my hand along paper as I craft words makes me feel alive, connected and engaged. It’s similar too to reading a book, turning its pages, and smelling its age--all impossible experiences when reading on a handheld computer or an eBook. Cradling a handheld or punching word into a computer creates a distance that prevents that connection I derive from reading a great book. It’s a clash between the old and the new.

But a trip late last season changed things and made me rethink the GPS. I became lost on some back roads. After riding around without much progress, I had to pull over several times on narrow, sandy shoulders to study the map. Eventually, I had to dig out the GPS, turn it on, and wait for the satellite tracking to locate me. At that point, I didn’t know how to work the “GoTo” or “Track” features—or even how to “Mark” my position. Yet, the compass saved me. Towns that don’t fit the grid model of my beloved Chicago can sometimes throw me off. For a good chunk of time, I felt trapped along the back roads of the town. I imagined being lost late into the night in a blackness that not even my headlight could illuminate well.

Another experience was scarier. While on the Lake Michigan trip, I encountered a detour. I thought I had followed the signs carefully. But after riding for far too many miles without seeing another sign, I turned around. And turned around again. Finally, I discovered that one of the signs had fallen down in spite of the sand-filled bags at the base to prevent this very thing. A most frustrating experience! In some communities, I’m not entirely comfortable roaming around and around. Men who may feel similarly have at least some assurance, I think, that they will be overlooked by the average jerk who may think twice about going against another man. As a lone female, I pose no threat, physical or otherwise to jerks. Eventually, I stopped at a gas station and received excellent guidance; by then I’d already done a slew of yelling inside my helmet. Detours shouldn’t, but some do, assume an insider’s knowledge of the roads and the signage is not always outsider-friendly. Usually, I can retrace my steps to see where I’ve become lost. That is not always possible. No matter how much freedom riding allows, as a woman and a black woman, I must keep my radar on alert at all times. After riding around a block a few times, my gut will begin to keep score, that sitting duck feeling is activated, and I am forced to ask someone for help or stop to study the map while judging if it’s is a good or bad idea to do so. As long as I’m moving, I feel safe(er). I’ve passed through some places where my gut tells me to keep moving.

Then there are those times when my pre-planning doesn’t include a road that I later decide to take. Spontaneity can be fun but it has it limits. Sometimes getting off the beaten path is a good thing, especially if one can get back on track. Some people seem born with an internal navigation system; they look into the sky, stick up a finger in the air and sense where they are and the direction in which to travel. Sadly, I’m not among that group.

For the GPS to resolve these challenges and add an additional layer for safety, I needed to learn how to use it. So, this past winter I re-read the 90 page manual, highlighting the important parts. I played with the software until I could select, mark, save and transfer routes to the device. I read some forums dedicated to the Magellan eXplorist XL and I tried to wrap my brain around the new language and information. Mine is not an “out-the-box” GPS. I had to install additional software to get exactly what I wanted—this was not cheap. Additional software ended up costing nearly as much as the GPS! That’s a whole bunch of atlases/maps I could have purchased! Although I’d read on forums that Magellan’s tech support “sucks,” my one experience proved otherwise. My one phone call hooked me to a patient woman who gave me clear instructions. Her unequivocal knowledge of the eXplorist XL had me running out of reasons not to like the unit.

Recently, I purchased the mounting ram and now the GPS is in easy eye view. The eXplorist has the largest screen of any handheld GPS. It is clearly readable in bright sunlight. I love that I can use it in the many state parks and trails I like to visit. It’s now loaded with both topo and direct route software. Although it will never replace my maps, I’ve now used it many times—along with a map visible in my tank bag, as a lone female traveler, it provides an added layer of security that a map never can. Turn-by-turn directions can prevent me from losing my way because of poor detour signage. Traipsing down unplanned roads is no problem for the GPS as it can re-calculate routes amazingly fast and steer me in the right direction. Yet, I don’t have to follow to the unit’s directions; I can go my own way and not feel constrained. Then it cleans up any bad judgment on my part. In addition, if I go somewhere and would like to get back to that place later or want to remember how I even got to this unplanned place, a couple of button clicks and I’m put back on track. This ability to drop “electronic bread crumbs” and the re-routing feature eliminate the need to stop, which can be the biggest security boon.

The GPS makes venturing off the beaten path a breeze for anyone, which is especially beneficial if you are female and traveling alone. Maps cannot compare to this built-in safety feature. If lost, I can follow the dropped “electronic bread crumbs” or use my back track feature to get back to where I came from. Those times when I felt like a sitting target, along some isolated road, stopping to check the map can be a daunting experience. While men can and may feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar places too, they are less likely to be pestered by another man and if so, they can at least put up a good physical fight It’s going to take me some time to dig out my hammer to fight back against someone who going to be bigger and stronger.

Yet, I don’t think GPS navigation will detract from my love of maps or ever become a device I’m learn to depend on. Gadgets fail. I will always sit down, pour over my maps, salivate over an atlas and trace roads with my finger. If you ever see me, you’ll also see a crumpled, folded map in the clear plastic window of my tank bag. At best, the GPS is a necessary supplement to a map—an added layer of safety. The Magellan eXplorist XL is a great GPS for hiking, boating, fishing and motorcycling.

However, I can never see myself falling to sleep on a cold winter’s night with my arms wrapped around my eXplorist XL, dreaming of a spring ride on an early Saturday morning.