Lost? The question doesn’t come up much anymore — at least insofar as it relates to being stranded on the roadside, Texaco map unfolded on the hood, wondering how to get to a friend’s out-of-town birthday party before the last guest leaves and the honoree is in pajamas and staggering toward bed.
“Sorry, we took a wrong turn. And then another. And things just kept getting worse. Can we help clean up the kitchen, and by the way, is there any cake left?”
Such woes are nearly forgotten relics of the 20th century, owing to the Global Positioning System — the fabulous GPS — that guides users to any doorstep, near or far.
Some heavy thinkers say navigational devices are making us dumber and less attentive. At this age, I reply: “So what else is new?”
To me, it is amazing that you can stick a gizmo on your windshield, plug it into the cigarette lighter, enter an address in Astoria, Queens, or Anchorage, Alaska, and be greeted momentarily by a confident voice that says, “Please drive to highlighted route.”
The voice, female, intrigues me. Who is she? How did she learn to pronounce — most everything — so precisely? Does she sleep?
My wife, Wink, and I have named the GPS pathfinder “Janet.” This is in honor of an old friend whose admirable certainty is a defining characteristic.
“Janet — sure about everything and, most times, correct,” we say about the GPS voice. When we arrive on schedule at exactly the time predicted, Wink and I shout, “Awright, Janet! You did it again. Take a break. Catch you later.”
You will recall that I said “usually correct.”
Janet on occasion has gone slightly off-script, a breakdown here or there that we are quick to forgive but apt to remember.
Once, I was in Arizona on a writing assignment. Wink was with me. We landed at the Phoenix airport, found our rental car, fired up the GPS and logged our destination. In a moment, Janet was on duty. “Please drive to highlighted route.”
Carefree and confident, we departed for a hotel in nearby Scottsdale.
It was night.
“Turn here,” Janet said, “turn there.”
We followed orders.
Why were we now so far from the highway and on a two-lane road in the desert? What happened to the bright lights of Phoenix? Where was everyone else?
Tumbleweed tumbled. Lightning flashed on the horizon. Distant mountains loomed bleak and spooky. Something was wrong.
“Continue ahead 99 miles,” Janet declared.
Ninety-nine miles? The hotel was 10 from the airport.
Janet had glitched. In a hurry, we retraced our route, found the highway, arrived somehow at the hotel. Oh, for one of those Texaco maps!
Our little adventure was nothing compared to the ordeal of a fellow named Noel Santillan of New Jersey. In 2016, he arrived in Iceland for a vacation. Santillan entered the address of his hotel on the rental car GPS and headed — he thought — downtown.
Much too late did the Jersey visitor discover that he had misspelled the street name and was directed by the GPS not to nearby Reykjavik, the capital, but the village of Siglufjörður five hours away.
The compliant motorist kept driving because, well, the GPS told him to. “I knew I was going to get somewhere,” Santillan said later, according to Outside magazine. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
Our Arizona episode was less psychological crisis than electronic inevitability. Turned out that Janet was just exhausted — her circuitry zonked after so much use. No hard feelings. We bought a new GPS and, presto, our loyal scout was back, refreshed and ready.
And how. In pastoral New Hampshire, Janet found a shortcut on a logging road, rutted and narrow, but got us safely out of the woods. Another time, in Connecticut, she found a catering hall at the end of a little winding lane hardly the width of our car, and we reached the wedding reception on schedule. When we were in Oregon for Wink’s family reunion, Janet discovered a small-town cafe called Our Daily Bread with size 2X sandwiches and killer oatmeal cookies.
Oh, yes, as noted, there are worries.
That Outside magazine story carried the daunting headline “Is Your GPS Scrambling Your Brain?” and quoted a neuroscientist who said, “If we follow our GPS blindly, it could have a very detrimental effect on cognition.”
Maybe so, but I’m not breaking up with Janet. My brain might be scrambled and cognition shot, but most likely I won’t be lost.