I've seen the GPS gizmos for sale at various retailers, and I'm unpersuaded. For one thing, they still cost a fair amount -- enough to pay for scores of paper maps. But more importantly, I'm suspicious that they'll contribute, in the not-too-long run, to the decline of map-reading skills and on-the-ground geographic comprehension, which is bad enough as it is. People will start their GPS at the same time they start their cars, the box will tell them how to get where they're going, and before long they won't be able to find anyplace unfamiliar without it.
I once knew a married couple who, at least in the old days of paper maps, never consulted maps that I knew of. It seemed that neither of them could really associate the symbols on the page with actual places and their relationship with each other. So they would get in their car -- I witnessed this from the back seat more than once -- and then discuss, in terms of landmarks and memories of previous trips, how to get to a place that was slightly new.
With in-car GPS, people won't even have to use their memories. Plug and go. Except, of course, when the system goes down at an inconvenient time, which is something not likely to happen to a paper map.
I bring this up because it was on my mind back in Michigan, after we left the Corner Bar on Main Street in Rockford (see yesterday). It was unfamiliar territory, and we arrived at the Corner Bar before dark but left after dark: a recipe for making a wrong turn somewhere. Sure enough, I made a wrong turn and headed into the night and rural Michigan.
Maybe a GPS would have prevented that little mishap, but on the other hand, if they're anything like on-line map sites, there's going to be some bad, misleading or outdated data in there. So let's not assume human error is the only way to make a wrong turn on a Saturday night a few hundred miles from home.
Some years ago, when I visited the Detroit area a few times a year, I noticed a series of east-west roads named after how far they are north of a zero-mile baseline that runs through Detroit. Not all of the roads use their mile names, but many do, including the famed 8 Mile Road, which also happens to divide the city of Detroit from its suburbs for many miles.
This is a legacy of the original surveying in Michigan -- in all the former Northwest Territories for that matter -- into townships bounded by baselines and meridians. (See this Wiki entry for more detail than you'd ever want about the nomenclature.) Kent County, whose county seat is Grand Rapids, also uses this mile road system. I noticed this because I'd spent some time with Grand Rapids maps, paper and electronic, before leaving for the trip.
To return from the Corner Bar to our hotel in downtown GR, I knew I needed to go west on 10 Mile Road to US 131, and then south. So I made my wrong turn on 10 Mile and drove. If it had been daytime, I might have realized the mistake right away, but the night obscures landmarks. We drove and drove, and soon I had that nagging feeling that goes with suspecting that you're going the wrong way.
Suspicion, but how to confirm it? The cross-road names were unfamiliar, and so were the scattering of place names. No one else in the car knew: we were all newcomers. There was no one to ask on the road -- no businesses or gas stations that I saw. My road atlas, if I stopped to look at it, wasn't detailed enough to tell me.
So I pulled over and got out of the car. It was a wonderful sky, dark and peppered with stars. Not just any stars, though. I first found Orion, now in the southwest -- then I could turn and confirm my position by finding Polaris. That told me that we were going east, the wrong way.
It wasn't an example of finding my way out of a wilderness. Just a practical demonstration, in the way most North Americans might experience it, of figuring out where you are without a machine telling you. Someday I want my daughters to be able to do this too.