Saturday, October 10, 2009


There are any number of arcane skills that I used to pride myself on that are now useless, skills that at one point I thought would be valuable to pass on to our children. One was the best way to convert a vinyl album to a cassette tape. Another was how to change a typewriter ribbon without getting ink on your fingers. But the one I was sure would stand the test of time was the ability to read a map and find the best way from point A to point B.

Oh, how that belief has been tested. Several years ago my wife got a new vehicle with a GPS system. Dubbed "Beth" to help demystify it, she grew to be the other woman in my life. At first I pooh poohed her, taking great delight in ignoring her advice, forcing her to repeat endlessly, "Make a legal U turn ahead and return to the highlighted route." Eventually, however, I came around, becoming convinced of the device's value on a trip to France, where Beth's foreign cousin (christened "Bethany") enabled us to wander hither and yon, and never be worried about making it back to Paris and a particular stand that made a coconut, hazelnut and chocolate crepe that will live in my dreams forever.

Back on these shores I so changed my tune that I gave in and bought one for my car, where it has taken up residence on my windshield. I'm hardly alone: well over half the cars you pass on the road have the same gadget installed in a similar place. They've gotten so ubiquitous that it's rare for anyone to ask for directions to anything anymore. All one needs is an address and a clear shot at the sky, and even those that get lost in a dead end become either Lewis or Clark.

Of late, though, I've been exploring the deeper functions of the device. The default mode is "get there the fastest way." This provides a mix of highways and local streets, and 99.9% of the time that works fine. Occasionally I'll switch over to "more frequent use of local roads" if there's a tieup and I need a workaround. And I can even set custom preferences, favoring certain parallel highways over others, especially when I know that those are more likely to be traffic-free than others. But my new favorite turns out to be the "take the shortest route" option. If you select this, the computer draws the most zig zag line it can, taking every little nook and cranny available that trims two feet off the journey. Never mind that you might never exceed 40 MPH. If you have the time, it's a chance to slow down and see the world in a whole new light.

For example, in the quiet days of late summer I needed some odds and ends from a hardware store for projects on which I was working. It's a store I've been to countless times, and I know the fastest way to get there. But once I loaded up the car with my purchases, I realized I was in no rush to get home and get started. It was a nice day and I had the top down on the car. So I hit the short cut button, and started out. Almost immediately it had me turn off the main road, diving into some local streets I had always just whisked by before. Before long I confess I was lost, though by lost I mean in unfamiliar territory, less than 10 miles from our home.

Giving myself over to the device, I dutifully followed the directions offered. I passed a small farm, a pristine pond, an old farmhouse melded to a distinctly modern addition. I found what looked to be a hand-build rough-hewn great room standing by itself in the middle of a field. Before I emerged on a road that I finally recognized I had passed horses and goats, and I'd swear I saw a llama as well.

I have since repeated the exercise several times, including to a restaurant we frequent several towns away, another time to a nearby business meeting. In both cases I discovered houses, streams and even a fairground I didn't know existed. In fact, the local Grange (something else I passed that didn't know was nearby) was having a show the next day, and I'm pleased to say we went back to look at the champion chickens.

Robert Frost famously wrote, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." Truth be told, I can't say my GPS wanderings have made a huge difference. But I can confidently report that it has made routine journeys much more interesting.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to drive and look around. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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