I love having a GPS unit in my car. I've had one since way back when Palm Pilots were still de rigeur and I bought a Tom Tom GPS receiver and software as an add-on to my Palm. I was fascinated -- and remain so -- by the thought that a tiny receiver in my car can communicate with global positioning satellites orbiting 12,600 miles above the earth and pinpoint my location within a few yards.
Paper maps are well and good for advance planning, but hard to read while driving alone.
On a recent trip to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, I compared two GPS units -- my old Garmin, which has served me well, and a trial run of Verizon's Navigator on my iPhone.
The winding mountain roads of that area are charming, but it's easy to lose one's orientation, especially at night. Driving them reminded me of a recent bus ride in the Andes near Santiago, Chile. At one point, the driver said "This road is like a lady: very beautiful, with many curves, but dangerous."
Late one night, returning from a visit with friends in Washington, D.C., I programmed the condo address into both GPS units and let them guide me home. I knew perfectly well how to get there without any help, but they both suggested an alternate route that would bring me in a back way.
Having nothing better to do, I followed their guidance along dark and twisting roadways including "Crooked Run Road," which lived up to its name. At one point, both units indicated that I was just three tenths of a mile from my destination, needing only to turn right.
I turned, but very slowly, since it was very dark and it appeared that the turn-off was a steep incline.
I turned, and then quickly hit the brakes, because all I could see in the headlights was water. Both GPS units had led me straight to a creek that was at least 30 feet wide. It took some careful work just to angle my car enough to back up the steep bank, which was covered with loose gravel. I had visions of having to call AAA to get me out.
After a brief conversation with the disembodied voice on the iPhone, I asked for an alternate route, and ended up driving another three serpentine miles before finding a bridge across the creek and winding my way back to the condo.
I took a walk the next morning to see why my GPS buddies had led me to potential ruin, and discovered that the small local road actually runs right through the creek. How often do you see a ford these days? I later saw several pickup trucks drive through at various times, but never noticed any cars giving it a go -- and I wasn't about to try it in my low-riding Prius.
Given that the GPS units are so conscientious about saying things like "In point seven miles, turn right on South Ox Road, then, prepare to turn left," you'd think they could add "in point one miles, turn right and drive through the creek -- and hope it hasn't rained recently."
But that would be asking too much, I suppose.
For some things, drivers still have to rely on what God gave them ... their eyes and their wits.
Even when at wits' end.