Accurate Directions

By Jeffrey Bridgman

Is there anyone who can honestly say he’s never been lost? Even the best of us get turned around once in a while. But now with GPS, MapQuest and the like, getting lost should be a thing of the past, right? Maybe not; sometimes the tools we rely on lead us astray.

Once on a road trip with some friends, we wanted to eat lunch in a town I’d driven through several times before. I remembered seeing a Quizno’s, but couldn’t remember exactly where it was. No problem. My friends had GPS! So we pulled it out, told it we wanted to go to Quizno’s, and started following its directions. Ten minutes later it gently announced: “You have reached your destination.” We looked around and we saw nothing but factories, so we kept on driving. It seemed irritated with our lack of direction-following-skills as it politely announced “Recalculating…”

On another adventure, a GPS took us on the shortest route to see the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. We figured the arch was downtown, so we just told it to take us to St. Louis. After a while we realized something was wrong, but we continued to follow the directions. Eventually we “arrived at our destination.” Apparently, we had arrived at the geographical center of St. Louis, which happened to be in the slums. A more reliable way to find the Arch would have been to look and head in the general direction of the towering landmark.

And GPS isn’t the only fallible technology. Have you ever gotten bum directions from MapQuest or Google? A friend of mine used MapQuest to find the airport in Northwest Arkansas and was directed down two miles of dirt road and across a one-lane bridge. Experiences like these can tempt us to give up on modern amenities and go back to a reliable hard copy map.

Although online directions and GPS’s can be very handy, they do have their limitations. Sometimes, information can be wrong or out of date. Or we can easily input the wrong destination. Although GPS’s come with beneficial information such as the locations of businesses, these can change fairly quickly. The routes they recommend might not hold up to common sense. And the devices often don’t take into account things like traffic conditions and road construction projects. The same is true for paper maps, but since they don’t have as much information, they aren’t out of date as quickly—when’s the last time you heard of an interstate getting shut down for good?

Avoid being late or lost by combining two navigation mediums and don’t forget to apply common sense. I try to determine which highways to take ahead of time and make a simple list of the interchanges. MapQuest and other step-by-step directions can be overly complex. Usually we only need to take a handful of highways that can easily be remembered or written down.

I always try to keep paper maps on hand as a back-up. Do you have a map in your car of your city or county? Often phone books have them in the center. This year when you get your new phone book, instead of throwing away the old one, put it under the driver’s seat of your car. If you’re travelling between states, stretch your legs at the first welcome center/rest stop when you enter a new state. Many states provide free maps at their welcome centers. But that won’t do you much good if you need directions to a specific place within a city. This is where the various online map services earn their money. Those turn-by-turn directions to our final destination can sure come in handy – when they’re correct. Back up these directions with a phone number for your destination, so if you get lost, you can call and have someone at your destination talk you in the rest of the way. Visiting the boonies where you might not get cell phone service? Then be sure to confirm the online directions with someone at your final destination before you leave home.

Mapping technologies are cool and convenient, but don’t rely on them as your only recourse or you may find yourself in a 2001 Space Odyssey moment, Hal. As always, a little preparation and common sense can go a long way in helping to make smart navigation choices while on a trip.

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