Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Latitude and Lunchitude

“A GPS is ideal for pinpointing the exact location of the crash you had because you were looking down at the GPS instead of the road.”
—Mike Kneebone, president, Iron Butt Association

I laughed the first time I heard this, then realized Mike could have been talking about me. I got my first GPS years ago, and haven’t ridden without one since.

I attribute the urge to get one in the first place to hanging out with people in the Iron Butt Association, something that ultimately led me to become a member, which you can do only by riding a minimum of 1,000 miles in 24 hours. Almost everybody I came in contact with had a GPS, and I began to feel left out. So I got one, too.

Although there are probably 40,000 IBA members by now, only a small number of them could be considered hardcore. Most of these while away the odd weekend riding 24-hour rallies that mimic the 11-day Iron Butt Rally. A GPS isn’t essential to success in these smaller rallies, but it really helps.

My first GPS turned out to be pretty helpful, too, but in a different way. Many motorcycle speedometers read high. An indicated 60 might only be an actual 54. The speedo on my V-Strom is off by about 6 mph at highway speeds. I know this because I checked it against the GPS.

Last year I retired the old GPS and got a new one. Not the latest model favored by my riding buddies—that puppy lists for a grand—but a factory-refurbished Garmin 2610 StreetPilot. It has a color screen, and it talks (“Turn left at next corner”).

The mapping software is incredibly detailed, too. I went riding with my buddy Ron a few months ago. We headed up into the hills and after a while the pavement turned to gravel. Then the gravel turned to dirt, and the dirt road became a dirt track. At one point the track was just wide enough for a car—a slot car. We couldn’t turn around and go back. Our only choice was to press on.

It was the kind of situation that leads to headlines like “Bleached bones of lost motorcyclists found in remote area.” It wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere, but if I’d stood up on the pegs I could have seen the middle of nowhere from where we were.

And still, when I glanced down at the GPS, the glorified goat trail we were on showed on the screen as a thin line.

We followed that line to another, thicker line, and that one led us back to a paved road. When we got there, just for kicks I told the GPS to take me home. It plotted the fastest route there, and all I had to do was follow its directions to my driveway.

Some people would say this takes all the fun out of getting lost. I say if that’s your idea of fun, you can have my share.

Granted, a paper map of the right scale would probably show the same roads as a GPS. But I’d have to stop, dig it out of the tank bag, unfold it, get out my reading glasses, figure out where I was—which if I knew I probably wouldn’t be lost anyway—then find a way back to civilization.

You call GPS a pointless gadget. I call it a miracle of modern science. We’ll agree to disagree.

But the GPS has one important feature no paper map I’ve ever seen has. I call it the Food Finder. Call up the right screen and it figures out where you are, then lists all the restaurants in the area, and how far away they are, and their phone numbers, and how long it’ll take you to get there at your current speed. It does the same for motels, too.

Find me a paper map that does that, and folds itself when I’m done looking at it, and I’ll buy it.

Meanwhile, I’m hungry, and the GPS tells me I’m only 37 minutes away from a cheeseburger.

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