I am very glad I decided to buy a GPS unit on the first day of my cross country camping trip to visit my daughter in Oregon. It was a concession to the fact that the paper maps I had were, well, pretty much useless. Not to mention the fact that trying to follow lines on a map while driving is, after all, the twentieth century equivalent of DWT (Driving While Texting.) So, modern gadgetry here I come.
The first thing I noticed was the voice. I guess since techno trifles are mostly the domain of men, the unit comes out of the box in default female voice mode. Or mine just happened to be a girl; there was a 50-50 chance, after all. The female voice is supposed to be soothing, perhaps. I was thinking of calling her Gypsy (the literary construction of GPS and an ‘ey’ soundy phoneme at the end.) Unfortunately, my device sounded more like Mrs. Steven Hawking than anyone named Esmeralda, so I decided to call her ‘Stephanie’ instead. I can reserve Gypsy for the familiar voice.
Whatever the name, Steph (I eventually shortened it) became a constant, and jealously guarded, companion. One on whom I would come to rely for all things expeditious, from my morning quest for a local greasy spoon, to her pin point accuracy in locating the next KOA for the evening’s camp food (make mine spam!) and fireside meditation. Though she did possess some endearing quirks, like the comical mispronunciations of common words. ‘St. Clair Avenue’ became ‘Street Clair Avenue.’ An honest mistake, I grant, but there is simply no excuse for ‘Kingshighway Boulevard’ becoming ‘Kings-shy-way Boulevard.’ Though maybe that’s the Hungarian accent coming through, eh Gypsy? And now, thanks to Steph’s street semantics, the William L. Wilson Freeway in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, is forever rechristened the ‘William the 50th Wilson Freeway.’ It is catchy. But you have to feel sorry for all those Williams, the first through the 49th, doing nothing deserving a freeway until number 50 came alone.
Steph really showed her longitudinal latitude on my trip into Washington, DC, for which I forever forgive her endearing mispronunciations. It was a test of our friendship, nonetheless. To all who have not had the pleasure, nay, privilege, nein, agony, nyet, torture, of driving into the governing center of our republic, I have this one thing to say. Don’t. Ever. Under any circumstances. Whatever negotiating may go on in the halls of government, negotiating the thoroughfares orbiting it is nearly impossible.
The geography around our capital is a snarl of highways, interstates, HOV lanes, access roads, streets that appear to have been designed by Dali, US Routes numbered by typewriter banging monkeys, highways which are east bound in the morning, west bound in the evening and entirely bound at all times: A veritable aneurysm of avenues. An angry chimp with a can of silly string could have designed a more intelligible system.
I think this was all too much for Steph. She started mumbling, and then I’m sure I saw a slight twitch from her suction cup perch on my windshield. I had only had her for a few days and, so far, the hardest navigational task I had set before her was: “Find me a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.” Not a stretch, by any means.
“Turn right on Sully Avenue,” she said, slightly terser than was necessary, I noted. Before the theatre of the absurd which was my driving field of vision I saw signs advertising several roads: Virginia 29, US 66, Route 110, Highway 50. But, alas, no Sully Avenue. No clear right turn anywhere, for that matter. Just an acre of concrete with road signs dangling above it. So I did the saner version of closing my eyes and pointing, that is to say I stayed pretty much where I was, did not change lanes, let my auto mechanical companion do the driving, and hurtled into one of the options.
Steph sighed. I know she did. She denies it, of course, but I could hear it in the surly way she snarled “Recalculating!” I didn’t need the requisite ‘jerk’ added to know that I was in the navigational doghouse.
“Oh, yes. Yes. Do. Please! Recalculate to your silicon hearts content,” I muttered, wondering if she was planning on having Stephen reimagine the time and space around my head. “I plugged you into my cigarette lighter, Missy. I can unplug you, too, you know,” I feigned to say, but thought better of it. By now she was my only hope of escape. Better play it safe. Maybe if I humor her she will still bring me to a Wi-Fi hotspot later.
“In point one miles, turn onto Washington Boulevard on left, then drive point one miles and turn right onto Lizzie Borden Lane and drive straight to Donner Party Circle across from Okefenokee Swamp Meadows and while you’re at it, turn yourself in at the state police station for all those speeding ‘incidents’ I’ve recorded over the past few days.”
“Ya? Fine. We can do that. And I can set you to metric! And by the way, it’s point one MILE! Point three MILE! Anything one mile or less is SINGULAR.”
“Uh, oh. She said it twice," I thought. "That’s a bad sign,” There was a pause, then the screen squelched and blinked a few times. I’m sure I heard a grumble and I think something obscene flashed on the monitor.
After a very pained pause, she continued.
“Drive point five MILES and turn right on the Lee Boulevard,” she said, matter of factly.
"Ok, then. You’ve got that out of your system. Maybe we are starting to understand each other." I determined to charge her batteries extra-long that evening. Just get me back to my cozy tent.
One thing about using an electronic aid to navigation is that it leaves you with enough time to get very, very bored. I started poking around in the various menus to see what other options for mischief I could find for Steph. Hmm, there’s a setting to show how much money I’m spending on gas and one that shows my elevation. I won’t need that since I left my hover car at home. It can display time, direction, longitude and latitude, feet till impact… Don’t know if I want to know the last one. I wonder if it can tell if I’m falling asleep and shout “WAKE UP!?” That’s probably the deluxe model.
A few days later, after numerous trips to Wal-Marts, rib joints, various battle fields, monuments and merriments, I set out on a long day’s drive. All day, as a matter of fact. I was going from the Buckaloons National Park in Pennsylvania (Nasty place. No Internet) to Granite City outside of St. Louis. (Street Louis, Steph would say.) It was then that I noticed one little piece of information I had ignored before: The estimated arrival time. At 9:30AM I was informed that I would arrive at my destination, indeed, at my actual camp site, at 7:17PM.
“Well,” I thought. “I bet I can better that.”
Then began the game of shave the minutes off the ETA. “Let’s see. I’ll have to take at least one break for gas, bathroom and to shake the blood clots out of my legs. I’ve got granola and a bottle full of camp water in the front seat, so food’s covered. Sure. I can get that back to before 7:00PM. No problem.”
So began my quest for minutes. And it went well, too. By 1:00 I was down to 7:05. Then 7:03. “I’ll be in the six-something-somethings in no time!” I thought, confident in my casual breaking of numerous interstate traffic laws. Then, after a break, it was back up to 7:08. “Darn! Five minutes. No bathroom next time!”
I would have made it, too, had it not been for those 50 miles of one lane traffic in Indiana.
“What’s with those people, doing all that road repair on my time?” I tossed at Steph while angrily stuffing granola into my mouth. She merely recalculated my arrival time further into the future, like a whittler chipping off flakes from a bit of wood.
“And what’s wrong with a one lane road?” I demanded. “We can still do 80. 45MPH is just a suggestion!”
Steph cooed a patronizing, “Mmm, hmm,” and clicked the arrival time back up to 7:17. She was enjoying this.
“Don’t patronize me,” I thought. The final ETA catapulted to just about 7:30.
Oh, and Steph had one more nasty little pay back in mind for ‘that whole Washington thing.’ The 7:17PM ETA? Central time. I reached what I thought was the last exit before the camp site, sure I’d be sipping beer and frying sausages in no time, and found myself on another freeway.
“Drive 100 miles on I270,” Steph demurred, smugly. Now that was cruel.
It was actually 8:30 Eastern time by the time I got there. Eleven hours in the driving seat. All I had time for, on assembling my tent, was a tin of herring, some crackers and a beer. Then bed. It was actually quite good. A meal, a rest and a fully inflated air matress can do wonders for the recollection of injuries past. Steph had come through in the end, after all. She brought me to that day’s ‘home’ safe, sound and without incident. I could thank her for that.
I think I can get the hang of this. We definitely made a good team, after all, Steph and me. The next morning, after breaking camp, the morning shower and mildly scorched camp coffee, I was ready for adventure.
“So, Gypsy. What have you got for me today?”