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Thursday, September 17, 2009  

Windshield Driver

My mom and dad were nice enough to not only lend us their pickup truck for our trip, but also their GPS unit. Or, as Trash and I might have called it a couple of times, "The Madwoman."

I mean, I don't mean to seem ungrateful, because she was awesome on almost every level. A little electronic device not much bigger than a deck of cards with an interactive map of the entire continent inside it can be an invaluable thing to have along when you're exploring unfamiliar territory. I can't even tell you how many places she helped us find (some of which we even went to). Honestly, that thing could do stuff I never would have expected. I always thought you had to punch in an address to get it to give you directions, but it will totally find places for you with minimal effort on your part. I mean, ask her to tell you how to get to the nearest Mexican restaurant, or an ATM that won't ream you with fees, or just "cool stuff," and she's all over it. And she does it with this calm but decisive female voice that seems to know everything. Which is why I keep referring to her with gendered pronouns.

Still, we didn't even turn her on for the first few hours of the trip, because how hard would it be for us to find Interstate 90, after all? The thing runs from Boston to Seattle, so it's not like we were going to accidentally blunder around the end of it somehow. She sat dormant in the center console while I missed a turn to stay on a road we wanted to stay on, and then ended up on an hour-long detour on the wrong state highway, the whole time expecting to come back to a route we'd left hours before. Despite what you may think, a state of being irretrievably lost is not the best circumstance under which to teach yourself how to operate a GPS unit, let alone try fiddling with the suction-cup mount that sticks to the inside of the windshield. Fortunately Trash knew how to operate another navigational device that my parents had left in the truck, a technological wonder we called the "road atlas."

Even when we found the freeway and she started telling us things we already knew, the GPS voice synthesizer injected a note of calm with her tranquil imperatives like "Turn. Right." when we stopped for gas. I think she thought we were lost again. Clearly we hadn't made a good first impression on her.

By the time we reached Mitchell, it was dusk and we were in the honeymoon period with the GPS. I even carried her across the threshold of our hotel room. This was so I could program some western South Dakota destinations into her memory and make them easier to find later in our trip. The only downside was that M. Edium was sleeping in the room with us, so I had to figure out how to mute the beeps I was causing it to make. I felt kind of guilty about that. I hated to stifle her genius.

But as is commonly recognized, with genius often comes eccentricity. The next day, as we were finishing up the Badlands Loop, I told her to take us to Wall Drug. This is not because I thought I might get lost, because not only does the Badlands Loop dump you directly into downtown Wall, but also given the ubiquity of Wall Drug signs in this part of the world, the only way you're not going to find Wall Drug from anywhere in the Midwest is if you're in no condition to drive in the first place. No, I was just curious as to how long it would take us to get there. ETAs become much more important when you're traveling with a four-year-old, you know.

Well, if we'd listened to her, it would have taken us a lot longer, because every time we passed a turn, she told us to take it. Even if that turn didn't, strictly speaking, exist. I mean, she didn't try to steer us into a pond like that one on The Office, but the first "road" she told us to turn on was a pair of tire ruts that disappeared over the northern horizon. Then she tried to tell me to take a "road" that to the naked eye looked more like a gravel patch shorter than our driveway at home. I began to wonder if she thought the truck was in 4WD mode and she wanted to see what it could do.

And yet later that same day, when we were headed on to Custer State Park and Trash had us take a truck bypass route around Rapid City, the GPS was at a loss. That's because as far as she knew, the smooth, four-lane road we were on wasn't real. The little car icon on the screen floated in the middle of a trackless nothing while the deceptively calm voice kept repeating "recalculating…recalculating…recalculating…" as though we were chauffeuring a stubborn Vulcan with autism. After a while, it wasn't hard to imagine what she was really thinking: "There's no road here, genius!" And, "You are going to mess up your suspension so bad." And, "Fine, I wash my hands of this." And, "Just let me out right here." And, "Is that a mountain lion?" (It was actually a Corvette.)

But I have to give her credit: she really had her shit together once we reached the park, where the roads haven't changed in over half a century. She had it all, down to those pigtail bridges. It was when we left the park that she had problems, like the day we were looking for a place to buy a new air mattress and she tried to send us to a Pamida four miles away. "Maybe we should just go to that Pamida," Trash wisely suggested, pointing out the windshield to the one right in front of us. Maybe it's something about the area we were in, which features a mother lode of fossils where scores of mammoths died in a sinkhole over several centuries. Perhaps thousands of years from now, paleontologists will uncover a giant fossil trove of GPS unit casings.

By the time we headed home, the Madwoman and I had come to an understanding. She could continue to suggest I take every turn off of I-90 except the one I actually wanted to take, and I could keep her in mute mode for the whole day. I'm sure a lot of relationships would last a lot longer if everyone had a mute mode. And it works both ways. I didn't talk to her either, which I'm sure she found highly preferable to some of the things I might have said in response to her incessant suggestions. I would have regretted those things anyway. This way we were able to part as friends.

P.S. When my mom was showing me some of the features, I noticed a "maximum speed" display that showed its top traveling speed during a trip. Before returning it, I wasn't able to find that indicator again. But just in case my parents did, I would just like to take a moment to remind them that the posted freeway speed limit in South Dakota is 130 miles per hour.

posted by M. Giant 9:50 PM 7 comments

7 Comments:

"as though we were chauffeuring a stubborn Vulcan with autism"

This is my new favorite turn of phrase.

By Blogger Jennifer, at September 18, 2009 at 9:36 AM  

Glad you managed to navigate the bypass to Highway 16 and get the correct directions from here. I *Live* in Rapid City and have a less than year old GPS and it doesn't know about that road, which I drive at least once a week.

I also love your Vulcan phrase, its great!

Patty

By Blogger Patty, at September 18, 2009 at 1:21 PM  

My friend in England has Becca (Becker) the GPS. She kept telling us to go down what looked like cart tracks in the Cotswolds. And he trusts her completely, so we did. Imagine my surprise when we ended up exactly where we wished to go without getting stuck in traffic with other tourists.

By Anonymous bo, at September 18, 2009 at 7:15 PM  

Yeah, the voice option is only to be activated in the most dire of circumstances, when only the alternative to hearing her is so much worse, you want to be talked to by that slow, plodding, infinitely patient wench. A pack of wolves, some madmen with axes, that sort of thing.

I've got one in my dashboard of my six-year-old car and it would probably be useful if I could figure out how to update the bloody thing with current roads.

As it is, whenever someone not used to having a GPS gets into my car, they are giddy with thought of playing with the primarily useless GPS.

Oh, and my son likes to let his iPhone sort of duel with the car GPS. I'm so glad he has his own car, and usually drives himself places these days. Imagine two of the blasted things, duking it out.

By Blogger Land of shimp, at September 19, 2009 at 9:20 AM  

Land of Shrimp - Call up the car dealership that sells your make of car. Mine stopped working after 5 years and it turned out that the CD that stored the maps was out of date.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 21, 2009 at 2:03 PM  

Apparently, there are ways to get different voices to be one's GPS audio. For example, Homer Simpson is an option. My husband found samples of the Homer Simpson GPS audio online and has now sworn that if we ever get a GPS unit, we will ONLY get the Homer version.

As we have zero intentions of ever buying a GPS unit, I am safe from having my GPS yell "D'oh!" if I ever miss an exit...

By Blogger Heather, at September 21, 2009 at 2:05 PM  

Homer is good, but I want the Knight Rider-branded one, with William Daniels' voice.

Click for video

By Blogger Febrifuge, at September 22, 2009 at 4:13 PM  

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