Wrong Turn

GPS and the vanishing pleasure of getting lost.
Wrong Turn, Indianapolis Monthly, November 2011

On March 9, 1922, the writer E.B. White, unemployed and with few prospects, packed a Model T Ford and drove across America, reaching Seattle in mid-September. He stuck mainly to roads, except in the prairie states where roads were not yet built; there he took to the open fields. He did this before any reliable system of support—gas stations, hotels, restaurants, and road signs—had been established. Twenty-nine years later, Holiday magazine asked White to make the drive again, writing essays about America along the way. He made it as far as Galeton, Pennsylvania, before turning back, disenchanted and missing his wife. Holiday went to Plan B, which was John Steinbeck, who took the trip in 1960 with his poodle and wrote Travels with Charley.

When I entered White’s route into Google Maps, I was informed that the same 2,852-mile journey could be made in 46 hours in my Ford, provided I drove a constant 62 miles per hour and didn’t stop to eat, sleep, use the restroom, or fill the gas tank. I can’t drive an hour without pulling over to take a nap or attend to some matter, so it would take me the six months it took White, plus an extra month or two due to my propensity to get lost while taking shortcuts.

A friend, knowing my tendency toward disorientation, gave me a GPS unit, saying, “It’ll get you straight to where you need to go. You’ll never be lost again.”

It is often the case that something’s highest virtue is also its greatest shortcoming, but in no device is that so readily obvious as in the GPS, whose unerring ability to guide us straight to our destination has also ensured the trip will lack appeal of any kind.

Ten years ago, I was driving through Ladoga, Indiana, on my way home from Shades State Park. In the center of town, a road to the south curved temptingly out of sight. (Some men are attracted to the curves on a woman, but I prefer the curves on a road.) I turned south and five miles later entered the town of Roachdale, where I discovered the Roachdale Hardware Store and its proprietor, Charley Riggle. I have returned to the hardware store once a week ever since and count Charley Riggle as one of my closest friends. Had I had a GPS unit in Ladoga 10 years ago, it would have directed me east on State Road 234 to U.S. 136 to State Road 39 into Danville. I would never have met Charley Riggle and for the next 10 years would have spent Saturday mornings at home working instead of going to Roachdale to visit Charley.

GPS eliminates the condition that has furthered humanity’s well-being and advancement for thousands of years: accidental discovery. Charles Goodyear learned how to vulcanize rubber when he inadvertently dropped a piece of rubber on a hot stove. Penicillin was accidentally discovered when Alexander Fleming checked a Petri dish containing Staphylococcus and noticed a blue-green mold had arrested its growth. Viagra was originally intended to treat angina, but doctors observed the males in the test group having a rather curious reaction. The use of microwaves to cook was discovered when a technician stood near a radar tube, and a chocolate bar in his pocket melted.

GPS eliminates the condition that has furthered humanity’s advancement for thousands of years: accidental discovery.

My appreciation for chance stems from my distrust of planning and forethought. A GPS leaves no room for luck or whim and is useless when an unforeseen breakthrough is needed. A GPS will do exactly what you tell it—no less, but also no more.

Growing up, I knew a boy whose parents advised him on matters large and small. He left home, but having never made a decision for himself was incapable of independence and returned to live with his parents, who still dictate his every move. I can’t help but wonder whether a generation weaned on the cold precision of a GPS can muster the imagination necessary for success, or whether a lifetime of electronic nagging will render them incapable of free thought.

Not long ago, my wife and I were driving from French Lick to our farmhouse south of Paoli. I had taken a wrong turn, night had fallen, a storm had recently passed through, and we found ourselves on a narrow gravel road, our forward progress blocked by a downed tree.

“Do you know where we are?” my wife asked.

“Somewhere in Southern Indiana,” I answered helpfully.

“Are we lost?” she asked.

“Temporarily confused,” I answered.

I backed up to the nearest crossroads, where I pointed the car forward and wandered through the country for another half-hour before coming upon Tucker Lake, then Joe Apple Hill, and home. It was a delicious hour of uncertainty, and when I went to bed that night I felt invigorated. There are people who fear being lost, perhaps the same people who buy GPS units. The technical name for their fear is mazeophobia. I’m pretty sure I don’t have it. I look forward to being lost the way the pope looks forward to Mass.

Due to bureaucratic inefficiency, the road on which our house sits is improperly marked, so visitors aren’t sure where to turn. I tell them to turn at the basket shop, forgetting it closed 30 years ago. When visitors finally arrive, I can tell at a glance whether they enjoy being lost. For reasons I don’t understand, I am frequently blamed for the inadequate signage.

“Why don’t you have your road marked?” my visitors will ask, perturbed, except for those visitors who use GPS and always find their way to our home. I ask them if the sign threw them off. “Oh, no,” they say, “we never trust signs. We just do what the voice tells us to do.”

Comrades, this is how despotism always starts. It conditions us to trust the disembodied voice of a machine over the proof before our very eyes, beginning the battle for our minds by first convincing us that our personal observations can’t be trusted. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most
GPS units are made in China, would you?

Being a real American, I intend to stick with dead-reckoning, missed turns, and arriving late. If no roads exist where I wish to go, I will, like E.B. White, take to the fields. For mine is the road less traveled, the untrammeled grass, the accidental discoveries,
the road curving out of sight to unknown points beyond.

Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This article originally ran in the November 2011 issue.