A Global Positioning System tells you where you are. When attached to a motorcycle a GPS device can tell you where you are, where you are going, where you have been, how long it took you to get there, draw you a map, your average speed, your highest speed, how to get home and if you are late for dinner. When coupled with engine information a rider can tell the gas mileage, when you should stop for fuel, where you can purchase fuel, where the closest combination gas station and restaurant is, how many of the waitresses are blond, brunette or redhead, which ones like to go out with motorcyclists and (when in Nevada) where the legal brothel is and what the prices are.

Today we accept this information, without explanation and without question. However it has not always been so. In fact, I remember when GPS was a government secret. A fireman friend told me about it when they put it on the fireboat. He looked behind himself several times like he was telling a dirty joke he didn’t want his mother to hear, and then in hushed tones told me there were satellites in the sky that could pinpoint you within six feet, anywhere on earth.

I called him a liar.

Of course today many cell phones come with a free GPS mapping system that will draw you a route to McDonald’s and tell you where you are within eight inches. This is not new or secret information. Everyone knows about it. But like anything that has a government stamp of approval or is universally considered perfect… it isn’t.

An Internet friend, who lives in the middle of California, invited several motorcyclists from both the Northern and Southern half of the state to join him for a barbecue, camping, rides and low-key, unorganized, two-wheeled entertainment. Living in the foothills on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, he gave us both his address and map coordinates.

Accepting his invitation, I rode within 50 miles on my own. Getting inside his area I promptly turned on my GPS and plugged in the longitude and latitude. Dutifully following the information, I made right turns and left turns and ended up at a dead end. The paved road came to a sudden halt at the edge of a ravine. I got off the bike, walked to brink of the precipice and watched the road jump over the cliff, turn into a dirt switchback trail which meandered down this side of the canyon, crossed the canyon floor and switch backed up the other side. Checking my GPS it stoutly proclaimed that if I continued down this abandoned fire road and into the abyss, my destination was little more than one-half mile away.

Like the HAL 9000, the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which required that you acquiesce to its desires, my Garmin 276 C also stated that it was mandatory for me to follow its advice.

I didn’t. Instead I took out a 20-year-old map book and saw that there was another road, a paved road that circled around the canyon and, while taking me out of my way for about a mile, led me right to my friend’s front door.

Arriving, I parked under a heavy canopy of trees. My GPS was livid and refused to tell me where I was or how to get home. It claimed that under the trees it could not pick up satellite information. I knew it was just being petulant and was pouting after being ignored. The GPS had chosen the shortest route to my objective. How dare I refuse to ride down into a wilderness gulch and not do as I was ordered?

At my friend’s house we shared a beer on the porch and because we could see across the valley we watched several dozen other motorcycles ride up to the edge of the canyon, back up, argue with their GPS and eventually arrive a few minutes later. Once the kickstands hit the dirt all the GPS technology on every bike refused to function. All of them went on strike and like undisciplined 3-year-old children, they flung themselves on the floor and kicking their feet they threw a communal temper tantrum.

Bikers continued to arrive well after dark and we enjoyed watching their lights ride up to the edge of the cliff and then back away. One rider was either too tired to argue with his GPS or just trusted it too much and he rode over the side. Laying it down, he didn’t go far. Our host rescued him and in the morning we drug his bike out with some rope and a four-wheel-drive truck.

The GPS tools were correct. There was a road from the end of the asphalt to the house but it was not a road any of us could have traversed without knobby tires. They were right, but we would have been wrong to continue under their spell.

When the sun is at a particular angle I can’t read the screen of my Garmin 276 C. So, to divert the glare, I made a sunshade out of the cardboard from an old Rand McNally Road Atlas. To keep it free of raindrops I also made a cover from some plastic, which was illustrated with a map print. Feeling competitive with anything map-like, my GPS hates being under the rain cover and has developed a phobia about dark places. It has become paranoid about being replaced.


The GPS has now been taught a lesson and no longer transmits sullen fits of temper. There is never any nonsense that it can’t receive satellites signals. Afraid that I will put it under the rain cover and be neglected, it now fires right up when I hit the start button. Pull the trigger and bang, it’s there.

It says, “Where do you want to go? Here is your information. Would you like a map? What else can I do to help? Please don’t put me back in the dark and make me hide under that dirty rain cover.”

If there was a GPS police I would probably be arrested for GPS abuse.



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