What’s your GPS?


The following essay was produced as part of my 2013 effort for the November National Novel Writing Month effort. As such, please understand that while I did give it a quick review, it has not gone through the same proofreading and editing I normally try to give all of the material posted on this site.

I always make some mistakes. There are errors to be found throughout this web site, and many exist despite dozens of attempts to correct problems. That said, ask that you approach this material in the spirit intended – a basic thought, slightly worked out and very informally researched, delivered in the hopes of writing more than 50,000 words by the end of November.

Thank you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“God is my GPS”
~ Recently seen on a bumper sticker

“You should consider a Garmin”
~ Bob

(Ok… let’s get this straight, right from the start… joke people. It’s a joke. So before anyone goes crazy reading those quotes, read the full essay first. Ok?)

Over the years I’ve watch as people used their phones more and more.

It’s no longer a convenience to have a camera option on your phone… those cameras on your phone are now better and more powerful than many point-and-shoot models.

Music… games… internet… and yes, even GPS options are all available on phones. And those apps and options are actually… in many cases… not only convenient and easy to use, they are also stronger and more up-to-date than the item you purchased a few months ago.

I got my first GPS unit several years ago, following an experience with a rental car. We had journeyed to San Francisco on a trip… had a unit in the rental… and it was true love at first use. Eventually, when I couldn’t find that particular make and model, I ended up doing a bit of research and investigation, and purchased a Garmin. That developed something quite startling for me.

I found that Garmin makes… no question about it in my mind… the best GPS units. It’s convinced me of this theory and corollary…

Theory – People that have used a GPS unit will tell you that you absolutely have to get a GPS.

Corollary – People that have used a Garmin brand GPS unit will tell you that you absolutely have to get a Garmin brand GPS unit.

And I do believe this works as a theory. I think it’s true.

Any person that has used a GPS unit will recommend one to someone that hasn’t. But, many of them will talk about how amazing it is to use one without specifically recommending the brand or model they use.

If the person making the recommendation has used a Garmin, they will not only recommend using a GPS unit… they will at the same time strongly urge that the GPS should be a Garmin.

The fly in the ointment of this theory is, of course, the steady march and advancement of technology.

If you have a smartphone, you can get a GPS app with no problem. And that app will almost certainly be as up to date as you could ever hope when it comes to maps.

(I’ll pause here for a moment while some people chuckle. Yes, yes… I know the stories and understand the punch lines involved in smartphones, GPS apps, and being up to date. Ha ha. Let’s assume you’ve done your homework in selecting your app though. And now back to the general ideas…)

That GPS on your phone might even offer things your standalone GPS doesn’t have… immediate evaluations of traffic conditions… adjustments for construction or other route alterations… and so on. Things that come as additional charges for a purchased GPS unit are built-in freebies on quality smartphone apps.

Most of us that purchase an actual GPS unit also often reach a point where the reminders begin. Because our needs can be basic… where not needing a new unit continuously means you can use one you are comfortable with for years… notes appear on the screen telling us that we haven’t updated our maps in two or more years and that it might be a wise idea. My guess is your app will be updated with far more regularity. (Or… and likely again for free… you just get the latest and greatest new app to replace it. Heck, some people trade in their phones for new ones much more frequently than many change a GPS unit.)

The thing is… these are tools.

Keep that in mind.


And while a saw… a hammer… a variety of screwdrivers… are all wonderful things, quite often tools come with limitations.

Those limitations might be in application. A rubber mallet, as wonderful as it can be to have on your workbench, is not that helpful in the backyard when you need something to strike the ax or maul while splitting wood. The theory is right… a hammer-like thing to smash away with. The tool is wrong.

Those limitations might be in function. A flashlight is wonderful when taking a walk in the dark, for use when the power goes out, and for telling ghost stories around a campfire. That same beam of light isn’t as helpful for tightening the loose hinge on the door of the kitchen cabinet.

Tools do not need to have one function. Tools can provide solutions for multiple tasks. But again… they are tools.

And so we turn our gaze back at the GPS concept and the smartphone.

Does your GPS contain international maps? Maybe not. Same concept though… your phone may not allow for international usage without massive charges and fees. Suddenly both of them can let you down.

Even when not traveling internationally, the simple concept of signal strength and reception comes in to play. “Lost satellite signal” may be announced by the lovely voice of your GPS… it is a potential problem for your phone as well, though usually without a sweet voice announcing the difficulty.

Recently Tigg and I traveled to the state of Washington. We ventured out for a few days to the San Juan Islands. And while on San Juan Island in the San Juan Islands, from the moment we were driving off of the ferry, I had the fun of watching my GPS not recognize the island as part of the continental United States. I also had the pleasure of watching my phone… as we drove to different portions of the island… tell me we were supposedly inching awfully close to Canadian soil.

The point is… you will not catch me predicting the end of the standalone GPS unit. Both an app and a unit have their times and places.

The trick is… as with anything… operator error.

The episode of The Office was called “Dunder Mifflin Infinity”… and yes, Michael drove a car into a lake.

GPS: Make a right turn.

Dwight: Wa wa wa – wait – wait – wait! No – no – no! It means bear right, up there.

Michael: No, it said right. It said take a right.

Dwight: No – no – no. Look, it means go up… to the right, bear right over the bridge and hook up with 307.

Michael: Maybe it's a shortcut Dwight. It said go to the right.

Dwight: It can't mean that! There's a lake there!

Michael: The machine knows where it’s going!

Here’s an article that delivers some of the best

  • Down the stairs and into Riverside Park.
  • Heading out of Brussels and into Germany.

There are A LOT more stories out there. People allegedly stranded for days in parks… driving into oceans… and just turning into fields with the intent to drive down roads that don’t exist.

And the thing is… no.

Hold on.

The thing isn’t anything.

Cripes, what are these people thinking? Seriously -- How do you make a short trip to the train station for a friend, which apparently thanks to a driver’s faith in the GPS became two stops for gas and a nap, and honestly believe you can blame the GPS unit?

These are people that have brought their rubber mallet into the house to try and hammer in some nails, and can’t believe that the mallet it cracking, breaking and falling apart. After all -- It’s a hammer! Darn poor production quality. It’s not their fault for using the wrong tool for something it is totally incapable of doing.

There is something to be said for blind faith folks. If you put your trust into a GPS and don’t bring along a road atlas… do some advance checks so you at least have a general idea of where you should be headed… or, just generally respond to its commands in such a fashion that you reveal yourself to be a complete loon… then you have no right to blame the GPS unit for placing your car into the center of a corn field.

There’s an error in my Garmin’s programming.

As you approach my house, there is a stoplight where you will turn left. Apparently the mapping information is such that my GPS doesn’t think a left hand turn is allowed. As such, it guides you straight through the light along the road for roughly a half-mile, where it explains that you need to take a u-turn. It then brings you back to that same intersection… that same stoplight where you should have turned left… and now, facing the other way, it explains you should turn right.

One funny thing about this is that the additional travel adds about two minutes onto the estimated drive time. And because of that, when you are even further from my house, the GPS tries to take you by the “shortest route” and often suggests using an earlier exit from the highway.

Overall… it’s close. But, making the left at the light that the GPS doesn’t tell you to make is the fastest way overall. It’s certainly faster than driving up the road, making a u-turn, and coming back. And, turns out, it is faster than getting off the highway and approaching the house from a slightly different direction.

Since I know I can take a left, I do, and the GPS goes cheerfully along “recalculating” into the new (and correct) finish of the trip.

Over the course of time, I am 100% certain I have probably added a few minutes onto some drives because I didn’t know about taking the left at the stoplight… so to speak. At times we’re lost, we need help, and even a slight off path guide can get us safely to our destination.

The thing is… I’ve never driven off of a boat launch into a lake.

There is a difference between the GPS being wrong… and even the GPS being to blame… and blaming the GPS when the reality is more likely that you are an inattentive idiot.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com