21 July 2009

The new, improved, road less traveled

For the past several days we’ve been driving through France, by our choice mostly on the vast network of secondary roads that constitute the “scenic” route. Formerly, such an itinerary would have been composed equally of preparation, acrimonious map-interpretation sessions, and frequent episodes of being completely and utterly lost. Frustration, stress, and confusion would have competed with (and frequently triumphed over) the joys of being off the beaten path.

Not so much this time. Our rental car has a GPS system and that, as Robert Frost said, has made all the difference. In a thousand kilometers (so far) of blue highways, we’ve been mis-directed a couple of times, but we’ve really never been lost and only rarely have we not been precisely where we need to be. I’ve impulsively veered onto single-track roads that led to scenic villages or panoramic vineyards, and no matter what hairbrained driving notion I entertain, no matter how many wrong turns I make, the GPS system patiently and effectively guides me back to where I need (or want) to be.

We navigated our way out of the maze that is Charles de Gaulle airport and headed unerringly to our first stop in Reims. We navigated tiny village lanes en route to visit vignerons in Champagne and Burgundy. We drove to our current location – a tiny village in the south of France – without a single missed turn, without a single moment of hesitation.

This is the transformational power of technology. I’m thousands of miles from home, driving down a narrow road in the Luberon, and my position is being tracked by a half dozen or more satellites. A disembodied female voice tells me which exit to take from every roundabout, when to bear left or right, and even directs me away from construction zones and traffic jams. The map on my dashboard not only displays the road I'm on, it shows the even smaller roadways I pass while I'm joyriding through the middle of French nowhere.

The technology isn't perfect, but it's amazingly close: on one or two real cowpath routes we've taken, the GPS has gotten confused. And sometimes there are new roundabouts or other road features that the software doesn't recognize. But the overwhelming majority of the time, it's almost creepy how accurate the technology is.

I can't over-emphasize how incredibly cool this all is. We love road trips, but the typical price for automotive impulsiveness is a lot of extra effort expended on getting un-lost. No more. It's liberating to follow a road simply because it looks interesting, and all the while feel confident that we will still find our way to our next planned stop.

Tomorrow we're navigating a circuitous path from here on the edge of Provence, up through the Alps and into Italy. I've tested a half dozen alternate routes, even seen driver's-eye views of the roads on Google maps - another astounding bit of technology - and I've plugged in my choice. Tomorrow, I'll literally be guided on every turn from this flyspeck French village to an equally obscure Italian town - and the only wrong turns I'll make will be the ones I choose.

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