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One for the Road: Where am I?

By Shadow

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Much as I love tech toys for my motorcycles, there a few I’ve resisted. One of those is a Global Positioning System, more commonly known as GPS. In my early years of riding, I would just mark up a map, stow it in my saddlebag and refer to it when needed, or maybe write out the directions on a piece of paper and either tape them on the tank or stuff them in a pocket.

Then along came Google Maps and other Internet-based products, which made things much easier. I would just map a custom route and that worked great, so long as I knew which way I wanted to go beforehand. There are all sorts of justifications why one might not want to follow printed directions, from traffic tie-ups to road construction to just “I wonder where that road goes?”

It wasn’t until I was tasked with leading a tour group that I realized I might need more than a map. This was a multi-day excursion with strangers who had paid for a guided tour and would probably not be terribly understanding if the tour leader didn’t know where she was going. So I bit the bullet and bought a GPS made expressly for motorcycles.

Fortunately, I had some time to experiment before the tour was to take place. To practice I decided to use the GPS for this year’s ride to Outer Banks Bike Week, but as a backup, I mapped and printed out the entire 500-mile ride on Google Maps, even though I’d ridden that route many times before. I also learned that if all I wanted to do was to get from Point A to Point B, the GPS would generally get me there. Just like my smartphone, it would even give me certain options, such as “avoid highways.” Not having acquired a headset yet, I couldn’t hear the verbal instructions and took a wrong turn that brought me into downtown Norfolk—a lovely city, but not where I wanted to be! The GPS did a pretty good job of getting me back on the right highway, though, so all in all, things worked out well.

But I learned that if I wanted to take specific roads, and make multiple stops along the way, it was on me to tell the GPS how to get me there. So once I returned from my trip, I began to research methods of loading custom maps into the unit. Turns out that Google Maps no longer creates files for GPS units, and nothing else I found did the job well. I put the question out to my Facebook friends who proposed all sorts of solutions, each of which I tried and none that worked the way I wanted, if at all. Then the GPS started complaining that I’d run out of space. Without getting too technical, let’s just say that after several calls to the manufacturer, a memory card purchase (not needed, as it turned out) and a software switch, I finally got things to work properly.

By this time, only a few days remained before the tour, so I worked long hours, tediously mapping routes for each day’s ride and then uploading each route into the GPS. Well, the first day went fine, primarily because I’d ridden the route before and knew where I was going. On the second day, problems began presenting themselves about two miles after our departure. Regardless of a strong satellite signal, the GPS didn’t know where I was and sent us on two complete circles before I stopped a cop and asked him how to get to our planned destination. Similar problems occurred throughout the day, leaving the group a little frustrated and me a lot embarrassed. That’s when I decided the unit had so many quirks that she deserved an eccentric name, and “Gertrude” just popped into my mind. I told no one, figuring they’d all think it was weird to give a nickname to a small, inanimate object, especially one that I’d been battling with.

Gertrude redeemed herself late that afternoon. We were behind schedule and I knew it would be impossible to follow the route I’d laid out and still make it back in time for dinner, so I gave her free rein in deciding which way would be the fastest in getting us to our destination. We were in an area where there were no major highways, and Gertrude selected a series of fabulous roads with plenty of curves, spectacular scenery and best of all, almost no other traffic. I put total faith in her, and for once, she delivered. We arrived at the restaurant in high spirits, raving about the roads we’d just ridden, earlier frustrations forgotten.

Sadly, that was an anomaly. I’ve used the GPS several times after that, on short jaunts as well as long trips. I learned that no matter how carefully I map out a route, Gertrude sometimes changes that route, as if on a whim. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for why she does this. So I still print out the directions and yes, still stick them on the tank. You know how you argue with the GPS in your car when it sends you on a route you just know isn’t the best way to get to your destination? Well, that’s me, on my bike, with my GPS. On one trip, I was so exasperated I started calling her Dirty Gerty. It seemed quite appropriate.

Sometime after our three-day tour took place, I went back to the same area and tried to get Dirty Gerty to take me along the same roads as before, but no such luck. She took me on a completely different route which wasn’t nearly as nice as the first one. And then she got me fairly lost trying to get back. “Recalculating…” I wonder if her tiny computer brain was laughing at me. Once again, ya done me dirty, Gerty.

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