December 14, 2005

"G.P.S. ... strikes me as the electronic equivalent of the child in the back seat querulously asking, 'Are we there yet?'"

Ted Conover, in a NYT op-ed, looks askance at the navigation device for the car that his wife wants so badly. He prefers to engage with maps and even to get lost.

Yes, why are you driving, to get someplace, or just to go?

When I was a teenager, with a 1961 Chevy Impala convertible, I used to go for a drive and deliberately get lost and then find my way back home. I still go for drives that way. This summer, I went to Colorado, and each day I got in my Audi TT Coupe and drove, making an intuitive choice at each turn and continuing until I was far enough away from my home base that I felt I needed to start finding my way back.

I want to muse upon things other than numbers when I drive, want to cultivate a subconscious sense of where I am and where I'm headed, want to enjoy unmeasured moments of suspension between here and there.
"Are we there yet?" Some of us feel, when we're in that car, somewhere in the great American landscape, that we are there. That's our there.


Ruth Anne Adams said...

I am a mom with three under 4 in car seaats and I unequivocally LOVE my onboard navigation system [and onboard DVD, but that's another post]. It has helped me get through unknown environs with crying children in the back calmly.

You can set it to talk to you in French.

You can turn it off or suspend guidance anytime you wish.

Even with onboard navigation, you're still the driver.

Sammler said...

It is strange and somewhat alien that the denizens of the Past used to simply "go for a drive". Environmentalist guilt may have stopped this; or perhaps the present is just more jaded.

Ann Althouse said...

Sammler: Should people who are driving to get to a destination that they didn't have to go to (like a vacation spot) feel less guilty?

Goesh said...

-I've always enjoyed an atlas but then point A to B is so damn boring and somehow compulsive, one ends up looking mostly at the clock and dead animals on the road and then we tell our friends it was a good trip -

Goesh said...

- as kids we would squabble and vie for a window seat and it is hard to regain that lost ground -

Slocum said...

Well, I don't have a navigation system, but I do have a handheld GPS that we mostly use for sailing, but it does have roads in it as well. On those occasions we have taken it with while driving, I've found that it actually creates a deeper level of engagement with the surroundings than otherwise. You can see on the moving map that, off the side of the road to the right, there should be -- yes, there you can just make it out through the trees -- a lake, a fairly large one, called 'Pickerel Lake' and there's a little town on the far side of it. Without the GPS, you'd never know most of what was along your route (within sight distance or just beyond), and you certainly would not know the names.

Ann Althouse said...

Ruth Anne, Slocum: Now that you mention it, I actually would like one of these things. You don't have to use it all the time. And there were times when I got lost when I really could have used some help. Maps lack detail and can be hard to see. I like studying maps before the trip and thinking up scenic routes, but sometimes when I'm out in the middle of nowhere and lost, I'd like some crisp instructions. I've gone 100 miles out of my way and into completely nonscenic areas after getting lost. I like the idea of a device that can be carried around. Do you use it while walking too?

bill said...

It has it's uses. I've been meaning to get one for cycling - where being 15-20 miles lost could mean an extra hour of travel.

My first encounter with a GPS was a few years back for my wife's grandfather's 70th birthday. The rental car had a GPS and the father-in-law drove. Of course we had to sit in the parking lot/driveway for 10 minutes while he navigated the menu from the top of the world to our present location, then entered our destination. Mostly for a 5 mile trip he could do with his eyes closed. You know, Al, in the time it took you to program that thing we could've driven there.

Truly said...

How is Silvio these days? You've scarcely mentioned him lately.

dick said...

I agree with Ruth Ann slocum. I remember when I was looking for homes in a new area when I was consulting. The directions given to make an appointment were from a native and left out a lot of things that would have been helpful. With GPS no problem.

On the other hand should I try to do what we did when I was a kid and just go out to see what was there, just turn it off and go. Again no problem.

So many of the comments on this issue seem to think that you have to use it all the time if you get it. To me it is a utility to be used when needed and not used otherwise.

ChrisO said...

I, too, love to just get in the car and drive. But somewtimes I actually have to be somewhere at a certain time, and don't have the luxury of meandering around. I've never owned a car with a nav system, but I've sold plenty, and to me it would be a great feature, especially the soothing woman's voice telling you to take the next left, and not ridiculing you when you miss it. Somewhat different than my current circumstance.

I also found it odd when I got into a German car and the only thing I could find on the nav system was a map of Europe with arrows going into France and Belgium.

Goesh said...

- Slocum, when the GPS tells you of a lake on the left, your eyes might miss a bear with her cubs on the right, but to each his own. I wonder if these devices don't help people who have a case of agoraphobia? City folk tend to have it, born on concrete as they say.

oldgranny said...

I got my driver's license fifty three years ago when I was 18 years old and can remember vividly the thrill of driving out to Jones Beach (Long Island, NY) all by myself on a gloomy winter afternoon. All the windows open, the cold wet air blowing my hair around, my foot as far down on the pedal as it would go, it was freedom and as close to flying as I ever got.

My husband and I love to drive and have driven all over the US, Canada, Mexico and a good part of Europe. My dream was to drive to Patagonia, but aching bones and iffy politics south of the border make it look like we won't be doing it in this lifetime, but I have high hopes for our next time round.

Our new car is eight years old and our old van eighteen, so we're due for a new car soon. This summer for our 50th wedding anniversary, we plan a trip from sea to shinning sea with lots of stops in between, but this time we'll be sissies and take the cell phones and a GPS with us, just so the kids don't worry, you understand.

Jonathan said...

I like to test my sense of direction by navigating by memory when I have to drive somewhere that I haven't been to in a long time. To use a map (or God forbid a GPS) would be to admit defeat. The best destinations for this type of exercise are the homes of distant relatives overseas that I haven't visited in many years or even since childhood.

A dear relative of mine who has often accompanied me on such family visits tries to be helpful by blurting out directions (she knows the particular area better than I do) whenever we approach a key intersection. This drives me crazy. I explain what I am trying to do and ask her not to interfere, but she can't help herself. Likewise I am, apparently, constitutionally unable to ask directions. I can't blame her for trying to help me (why should she put up with my silly game?) but maybe this kind of situation gave Sartre the idea for his play about the closed room. Happily, we eventually arrive at our destination and move on to non-driving activities.

Exploring by car is great, but it's best done alone or with someone who you know from experience is a compatible traveling companion.

tiggeril said...

My parents' new car came with a GPS system and they're so taken by the novelty of it they use it for everything, including to and from places they've been visiting for the past twenty-five years.

That's my dad, anyway. My mom will use a map to plot out their course beforehand and then compare it to what the GPS is saying as they go along.

Steve Barton said...


I know just the good feeling you get from your game -- the confirmation that your memory contains deep things that can be brought forth and used when needed. I have never gone so far as to chide someone trying to help when I was trying to remember a turn, however!

The opposite of that good feeling is when the place you are headed has been totally erased. In my case, it happened when navigating by subconscious (and at least a 25 year memory gap) to my old high school (Woodbridge SHS, Woodbridge, Va). I was thoroughly discombobulated when a hospital/medical complex appeared, with a changed road network, reworked landscape, etc. where my memory said it used to be. The surrounding changes were so great that I was left with the feeling that my old high school site must still exist somewhere, because what I was seeing was so different.

Anyway, all the comments about driving and navigation are interesting and helpful, with the annual haul to grandma's house looming: Atlanta to Clearfield, Pa. and thence to Buffalo around New Year's (great timing!) and back again. If I could attach the minivan to a 65mph T-bar for the length of I-81 in Virginia it would brighten my holiday more than a new shiny gizmo.

Wade_Garrett said...

I love road trips! There aren't a lot of airports in New England; most people who fly use one of three airports in Boston, New York City or occasionally Hartford. Driving is just more convenient; when you add in the time it takes to get there an hour before your flight, fly, then wait for your bags, driving might actually be faster, not to mention less expensive.

What I love about driving in the northeast is that if you drive off of the interstate for any appreciable distance, you will pass through a series of old, charming, small little towns, most of which have a town square or an old-fashioned Main Street with a courthouse, a library and two churches, all of which you would have missed by flying. Massachusetts and Connecticut (once you get out of the NYC suburbs) are especially nice in that regard. In the midwest, the towns are newer, and much further apart, so now I look at driving more as a means of conveyance, rather than something fun.

Dale B said...

I have a small portable GPS unit and will use it from time to time on my motorcycle trips, both day trips and long tours. I have found that actually using it for navigation is too distracting and it goes against my usual wandering style.

I discovered that the GPS is most useful for recording my track. Most of my weekend rides are in southwest Wisconsin and the best roads are usually not on regular road maps. They are on the GPS but, as I said, it's too distracting to navigate with it. Plus, I'm not going anywhere in particular anyhow.

As I am usually lost when I find a cool road, in the past I could never find it again. Now, when I get home, I can download the track I followed into my maping software. That way I can at least find the place again.

If you have ever been to southwest Wisconsin you will know how much fun it is and how easy it is to get lost. This area is called The Driftless. It was not glaciated in the last ice age and is full of hills and valleys. The roads are nice and twisty with very little traffic. There are enough small towns to get gas and something to eat. It is a very pretty area.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Professor A: What's with this "crisp" kick you're on? "Crisp opinions" from Chief Justice Roberts and "crisp posts" on your blog and now "crisp directions"?

Do you want something crispy for Christmas?

HD_Wanderer said...

As I said once,

"The key to a successful Wandering is not to enjoy the destination in spite of the trip, but to enjoy the trip, regardless of the destination."

I can see why they are useful, but I don’t have much interest in having one in my car. Same with DVD player. The trip is often the point, not just the means to an end. Some of my best childhood memories are of traveling with my family. I spend a lot of time in a car with my children. That’s time I’m not willing to give up to a DVD player. As for the navigation system, I think I would find it harder to keep from fixating on a destination. Sometimes I just like to wander. Knowing where I’m at and where I’m headed would defeat the purpose. I like to go to over the next mountain just to see what’s there. I like not knowing how far the next town is. I like an aimless trip down a road just to see where it goes. Having a navigation system in the car, even turned off, might ruin the effect. I’d always know that in an instant I could answer the question “I wonder where this road goes?” I want to wonder. I want to wander. I want to find out what’s over the next hill, when I go over the next hill.

Slocum said...

Slocum, when the GPS tells you of a lake on the left, your eyes might miss a bear with her cubs on the right, but to each his own.

Ah, but wouldn't the bear & cubs be more likely to be found along the lakeshore?

Ann: I like the idea of a device that can be carried around. Do you use it while walking too?

Yes, it's portable, and we use it for sailing, hiking, and mountain biking also. I have a Magellan Sportrak (spent about $200) which came with a CD containing a combination of roads and topo maps:

I doesn't have enough memory to hold the entire country's road and topo database, so I have to upload the area(s) of interest for a trip.

Ann Althouse said...

Ruth Anne: "Crisp" is one of my favorite words. I expect ideas to be like potato chips.

HD Wanderer: Excellent point about spending time with kids in the car. I had some great times with my sons on long trips: reading aloud, word games, storytelling, conversation.

Richard Dolan said...

The "romance of the road" in just wandering with no real concern about whether one is getting to the ostensible destination (if there is one) is much stronger when experienced from a motorcycle, than from a minivan with two kids asking every ten minutes whether we're there yet. Odes to the "thereness" of nowhere just don't cut it with a 6 year old, at least in my experience.

That being said, I've never had a GPS and don't particularly want one. My wife doesn't like to drive, and so by default has become the map reader. She's not great at it, but so what. Whenever we're heading to some place we aren't familiar with, she prints out the directions on mapquest or the equivalent. I guess that's just a less tech-y version of GPS, at some level. We don't get lost often, and when we do it's usually in a suburb (we live in Brooklyn) when we're taking the kids to some event (a birthday or the like).

Perhaps it's just life in the City, but we don't "go for a drive" much, and instead go for a walk (around the neighborhood, over the Bridge, somewhere in Manhattan, etc.) The prospect of a drive in the car doesn't exert much pull, romantic or otherwise, here. But that may just be a function of the NYC perspective, where we're stuck with having New Jersey as the "wild west."

Abraham said...

I have a handheld Garmin unit and I love it. I use it while running, to see exactly how far I've run and how fast. I got a car holder that sticks it from the windshield. I often use it when driving because its speedometer is more accurate than my car's, and it tells me which direction I am facing. When I need to use it for directions, it connects to my laptop, and I just pull up DeLorme StreetAtlas. The program communicates with the GPS receiver and the computer pinpoints my exact location on a nice, clear map. If I want, it will create routes and do other navigational stuff, but I more frequently use it just to see what's around me as I drive along, (or to geolocate open wi-fi hotspots, ahem...)

dick said...


As one of the denizens of the Past (65 years old) one of the joys of the time was the Sunday afternoon drive.

We would get up Sunday morning, go to church, go to "dinner" at a local restaurant, and then get in the car and just take off on whatever road presented itself.

The area where I grew up was located right on the edge of where the glaciers ended up so northeast of town was very hilly and scenic with lots of woods and bridges. The area southwest of town was like the start of the great plains with all the farmland. At the time all the industrial plants were in the town and the rest of the area was farms and woods and creeks and one-lane bridges.

Just east was the largest Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish to you) settlement in the country with their horses and buggies and their roadside stands with the fresh produce. They also had a lot of cheese factories and baked goods there so we would stop and buy the stuff for a picnic in the late afternoon.

There were also about a dozen small colleges in the towns around there with something going on most of the time so we would stop to look at what was going on there.

We kept cane poles in the trunk of the car so sometimes we would stop and fish in the small streams along the way. South was a state arboretum so we could always go there and wander in the woods. Next to the arboretum was an amusement park with the various rides and the swimming and boating so that was another option.

The area also had a lot of dogwood trees and also a lot of rosebushes so they had trails of them to look into. In one of the small towns there was a fantastic museum that I still like to go to when I am back there. There was a man who loved to do wood carvings. He carved trains with movable wheels and all the windows. Excellent detail. I remember that one of the presents that Eisenhower gave Kruschev back in the 50's was a train that this guy had carved.

And this was all in small town northeastern Ohio. Wonderful time to grow up and a great area to do it in.

That was long before we got jaded so I don't know if the kids would enjoy it now but it was a great way to be with family and do things we all enjoyed.

Rick Lee said...

I just now pulled in from a road trip to Wash, DC and back. GPS figured in the trip.

I've used GPS for years... not an expensive built-in or purpose built car navigation system, but a cool Delorme add-on for the laptop that you can get for less than a hundred bucks. I love the fact that the laptop screen is big and you can really see the map well... but it's a pain to boot up and use on the spur of the moment.

Using GPS truly changes the experience of traveling by car. Some in good ways and some in bad. It's a completely different experience to be in a car in strange territory and KNOW exactly where you are at all times. If you have any doubt, you look down at the screen and there your car is... a green arrow moving down the street.

I travel a lot in the car for my work (commercial photographer) and I often have to go someplace I've never been before and show up on time. One thing I've learned over the years is that most people are really bad at giving directions. Taking away the prospect of getting lost relieves me of a lot of stress. If I get off track or need to detour for some reason, it's a simple matter to change the route. I simply never get lost. It's not possible. Yesterday, traveling into and out of Washington, DC, I had my GPS helper to get me there. Driving in DC can be a nightmare. One road was blocked off by construction but it was simple to just look at the screen and choose a new route and keep working at it until I got back on track. I hardly lost any time at all and there was no stress. It all seems so simple with GPS.

Is it perfect? Of course not. Map databases always contain errors. But so what? It's still better than doing without it.

When you first get it, most people will use it too much. It's a fun toy and it can distract you from the pleasures of traveling and just looking around. But after a while it's just another tool in the toolbox. An extremely useful tool.

Al Maviva said...

>>>It has it's uses. I've been meaning to get one for cycling

Good comment. The real use of GPS's, of course, is to be able to drop shells and missiles into a target the size of a coffee cup, but they are pretty cool for hiking or riding in some new place you've never been. I'm waiting for the price of Garmin's high end bike computers to come down, and to integrate pedal cadence and heart rate at a reasonable (sub-$200) price. Next year, maybe, based on how the price of tech seems to drop over time.

It would be nice to be able to track training a little, well, a lot better, controlling for hills, heartrate, elevations climbed, pedal cadence and speed. Soon enough, the software will point you in the direction you need to go - "hey fatboy, better integrate some two hour weight loss rides into the weekly schedule, it's killing you on hills." Or "time for some 5 minute lactate intervals..." The ultimate will, of course, be integrating the power meter readings into the unit; that will tell you if you could improve your riding by lifting weights.

I for one, am looking forward to our new digital masters...

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