Friday, 18 May 2012

Finding Our Way

A few years ago, my adventure partner decided to surprise me with a TomTom. To be perfectly honest, I thought it was a pointless piece of technology. I had happily road tripped through multiple countries by looking for road signs and reading my maps, so I didn’t need a GPS. Two months later as we were driving through Denver, I discovered that having a soft-spoken voice tell me when to turn left made for a much healthier marriage than using my husband as a navigator. My love affair with the GPS was born! 

The TomTom became one of those arbitrary markers: life before the GPS and life after the GPS. Pre-GPS, some of my favorite afternoons started out by driving with no set destination in mind. One random Wednesday, I woke up and decided to drive to the English coast. I turned left on a whim after seeing a sign for a tourist route. Thanks to that detour, I visited two castles, had some amazing homemade black currant jam, and discovered one of my favorite vineyards.

Driving without a GPS was not without its fair share of problems though. One night when I was still very new to England, I volunteered to drop a friend off at Gatwick airport, and then headed home to Cambridge. At some point I took a wrong turn, and after an hour or so the road just ended at a large body of water. I found this to be strange because I didn’t remember crossing an ocean on the way down. I backtracked to the nearest gas station and asked the attendant where I was.

Attendant:     You’re in Brighton.

Me:               Where the hell is that?

Attendant:    (Points to a city on the southern tip of England).

Me:               You’re shitting me, right?

The attendant burst out laughing when I explained where I needed to go. I rested my head on the counter, regrouped, and said, “All right. I’m gonna need a map, a pack of smokes, and some Red Bull. This is going to be a long night.”

North and south were lost on me that night.

I arrived back home just in time to change clothes and go to work. In that instance, I really wish I’d had a TomTom.

I can’t argue the fact that the GPS has made my life infinitely easier, but sometimes I wonder if it’s simultaneously taking away my ability to navigate without it. In 2011, researchers at Columbia University, led by Betsy Sparrow, found that we’re more likely to forget facts that we can easily look up. This finding was dubbed the “Google effect.” Similarly, I don’t remember directions to places that I visit now, because I know the TomTom will get me there. Am I sacrificing part of my intellectual abilities for the sake of convenience?

When I’m lost, the journey is part of the adventure. I have to figure out where I am and where I need to be. Getting lost has given me the chance to see places I never would have visited otherwise, and has introduced me to a lot of interesting people. Whenever I turn on my GPS the thought lingers in the back of my mind: How will I ever find myself if I never get lost?

I’ve been attempting to use my GPS less in an effort to regain some of my navigational skills. It’s been simple trips recently, such as finding the community center in a country village I’d never been to before. I imagine I could’ve found the community center faster had my trusty TomTom guided me down every street, but I took the time to read the road signs, look around, and take in this tiny village.
In addition to a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that I could find my destination without any outside assistance, I found myself appreciating all of the little details of English villages that I’m going to miss: the old men sitting outside the pub, the grassy views of the Cambridgeshire countryside, and the tiny co-op grocery stores. Everything seems slower in the villages.

In the summer, I experiment with various ways of getting home GPS free, just to experience life away from the highway. I’ll take a tractor and a railway crossing any day over rows of semis and pissed off commuters. This simple change to my daily routine saved countless lives when I was quitting smoking. When the farmers plant their fields, I like to roll the windows down so I can smell the scent of freshly tilled earth. This plan has a tendency to backfire near the pig farms, but it’s the risk you take.

The many scents of England.

I keep the GPS in my glove box so it’s there if I need it, but the convenience of the TomTom pales in comparison to the satisfaction I get from finding my own way. Much like life, I appreciate my journey more when I know I’ve created it myself, no matter how many twists and turns I may take.

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