People acquainted with me know that I tend to be slow at acquiring newfangled electronic gadgets. Proof of this is the fact that I have a four-year-old cell phone and only recently started dabbling in social media. Although this could easily be explained away merely as stubbornness or laziness I prefer to think that I’m acting out of sentimentality, fearful that in adopting new technologies we risk losing some of the charms of the simple life. One such device I am having a love/hate relationship with is GPS. This technology, amazing as it is, threatens to abolish one of the time-honored traditions of motorcycling; getting lost.
Over the past decade GPS has pretty much become ubiquitous. Whether it be a specialized unit or one of the plethora of electronic devices equipped with seemingly infallible guidance, today most of us are fairly well linked to an orbiting satellite, able to discern where we are and how to get where we’re going without too much concern about taking a wrong turn. Obviously the pros of GPS far outweigh any cons I might try to muck up. That said, I will always remember with fondness the good ole days when we had to rely on maps, instinct, and the kindness of strangers to find our way.
These warm reminisces for the pre-GPS days exist because half the memorable rides I’ve been on in my life were the ones where at some point in the journey I took a wrong turn. Although some of those miscues in navigation led to frustration, a good number of them led to unexpected adventures. I might never have seen the Royal Gorge Bridge outside Canon City, Colorado, the tallest suspension bridge in America, if I hadn’t gotten lost. Half the canyon twisties that I enjoy now on a regular basis were discovered because I was lost. One of my favorite night’s stay in the south of France happened because my lady and I lost our way. As a result we stumbled onto a quaint bed & breakfast in a tiny village that was employing a Michelin star chef. Until the advent of GPS I didn’t realize that part of the fun of riding a motorcycle was often not being sure where you were. Provided there wasn’t a pressing danger associated with it, getting lost was half the fun.
I have always been amazed at how quick complete strangers are to offer directions when they see someone studying a map. "
One of the sad casualties stemming from the invention of the GPS will be maps. The tactile practice of folding and unfolding these navigational tapestries, trying to remember routes or turn-offs and highlighting rides with felt markers, will soon be the stuff of a bygone era. Personally, I have always enjoyed stopping at the side of the road or pulling into a small café to figure out where I was on a map. There is something wonderfully adventurous and romantic in tracing the thin, multi-colored lines of winding back roads draped over undulating topography while trying to figure out how to get back on track. Spread out over a tabletop or across the seat of a motorcycle, a map provides a wholly unique overview of where you are and where you’ve been. Slightly different than a GPS, an open map provides a wider expanse of promise for adventure and endless opportunities for getting lost.
There is a drawer in an old dresser in my home full of sun-faded and coffee-cup-stained maps from past trips, the creases worn thin from folding and unfolding, myriad tears fixed with lengths of tape. They may be old and obsolete, with long-outdated information, but I can’t bring myself to throw them out. The last two times I moved I tried to toss them but couldn’t bring myself to do it. These well-worn tools of navigation are the personal trophies of rides gone by, places visited, people met, and getting lost.
Another aspect of the open map is that it is a calling card for locals to offer help. I have always been amazed at how quick complete strangers are to offer directions when they see someone studying a map. There must be a bit of mystique in the sight, especially in the hands of a motorcyclist. It reeks of adventure. To them we are modern-day wanderers, two-wheel nomads. They want to vicariously come with us by offering directions. This has resulted in a host of interesting, albeit short-lived conversations about bikes, travel and life, allowing me a glimpse into someone else’s world.
As of late I’ve found myself wondering which roads I might have erroneously taken if my GPS weren’t dutifully pointing me clearly and concisely to my appointed destination. I am stopping a lot less at T-intersections and trying to guess which way to go. GPS has me whipping through bucolic back hill towns, past the ever-present old men rocking themselves on porches–ready and willing to offer help to the wayward traveler. Instead I race past, effortlessly following the little motorcycle icon through potentially confusing mazes of intersecting roads. I can’t recall the last time I ended up on a dead-end road, scratching my head and wondering where I took a wrong turn. What might I be missing by being so overly efficient?
…another casualty of the GPS…is the disappearing "
Chalk all this up to romanticism because truth be told, you can’t really argue with GPS. There’s no practical argument or defendable logic that will ever have paper maps usurping the effectiveness of this technology. A GPS would have saved me a lot of anguish when I was lost in the Pyrenees one freezing night in the middle of a frightening thunderstorm. I would have gladly traded my romantic leanings for some dependable directions to get down off that mountain. Yet even that dangerous trip–being that I managed to get through it unscathed–possesses a residue of adventure due the simple fact that I was lost.
Of course I have the ability to be as hypocritical as the next guy. Despite my reticence to accept new gadgets I have to admit to a recent happy indulgence in progressive technology. At the press launch of the new BMW K 1600 GT in South Africa we were given Schuberth helmets outfitted with Bluetooth navigation. When you’re traipsing across unfamiliar territory in a foreign country it’s very reassuring to have a voice piped directly into your ear–in this case a woman with a lovely English accent–informing you, “In one kilometer make a left.” The system allowed me to savor the ride, the scenery, and the bike because I wasn’t concerned with road signs (which were in Afrikaans) or having to keep my fellow riders in view. So, there are definite advantages to the march of technology.
There is, however, another casualty of the GPS that may not be as pronounced as the vanishing art of getting lost or the sad demise of the printed map. It is the disappearing social graces of asking directions. This wonderful excuse for social interaction with total strangers will be missed. Of course if the urge for the romanticism of getting lost ever supersedes common sense, or I am feeling forlorn for some human interaction, I suppose I can always reach up and turn the GPS off. SR