Rearview mirror
Photo Illustration: Caroline Shepard
U-turn! Recalculate! Keep right! Thanks to her new, slightly bossy GPS navigator, Jody Mace is on time, on track, on the straight and narrow—but at what cost, she wonders....
A few years ago, my family was exploring Provençal villages with the help of a huge, wrinkled map. The owner of the house we rented had recommended a certain restaurant in a nearby village called Cabriès. When we got to the village, we drove around in circles, unsure exactly where the restaurant was. Had we already seen that stone building or was it a different one? And where were the street signs? Finally, we called to a young man on a bicycle and pointed to the name of the restaurant on a piece of paper. We looked at him in a quizzical way that clearly indicated we were lost. He launched into rapid-fire directions, well beyond our limited grasp of French. Seeing our helpless expressions, he motioned for us to follow him. When we arrived at the restaurant—faded yellow set off with a bright red awning—he waved goodbye and coasted away.

That's the last time I was lost. Since then I've bought a GPS navigator and it's kept me on track. Half the time I don't even know what street I'm on. I just obey the pleasant but authoritative feminine voice. "In .6 miles turn left."

Occasionally the navigator and I have a difference of opinion, and I ignore her advice. She corrects me. "Recalculating," she says brightly, with a crisp British accent. "Make a U-turn when possible." If I continue to go my own way, she seems to get annoyed (her voice never changes; still I detect some agitation), but she never gives up. "Recalculating. Make a U-turn now." Sometimes I turn down her volume until I'm where she wants me to be.

When I was on long car rides as a kid, I constantly asked, "When will we be there?" and the answer usually boiled down to "When we get there." When my kids ask me the same question, I can say "4:35" because the navigator keeps the estimated time of arrival on the screen. They've come to expect this level of precision. That's not to say that nothing alters the arrival time. The navigator assumes I'll be lucky with lights, there won't be any traffic, and my kids won't require bathroom breaks. When any of these events occur, the time is adjusted. "4:41." I get annoyed then, because I feel like I'm letting the navigator down. The estimated arrival time was a challenge and I'm blowing it. So I try to make up for lost time. If I go just five miles over the speed limit, every ten or 15 minutes the ETA creeps up. "4:40." "4:39."

Sometimes the roads change faster than the digital maps, and the navigator gets confused. Her screen shows me driving recklessly over fields. The arrival time jumps ahead as the navigator estimates it will take me six minutes to bushwhack through the woods back to the highway. "Recalculating," she says, devising ever more ludicrous routes to get me back on track. After my blue triangle merges onto the road on the screen, I'm relieved that the navigator and I have the same vision of the journey. We agree on where I am.

Before I had the navigator, I didn't really have an arrival time in mind. We'd get there when we got there. No urgency. But now there's pressure. I feel like a failure when the arrival time is pushed back. I hurry my kids through the 7-Eleven. If there's a line, I try to convince them that they don't really want those M&M's.

The navigator is changing the traveling experience for me, and I'm not sure it's always for the better. It's a safe feeling; I'm never really lost. If I listen to her, eventually I'll end up where I want to be. But security comes with trade-offs.

I don't notice landmarks as much as I used to. I live in a part of the country where folks give you directions like "Turn at that old place where they sell the doghouses." I'd scan the road until I saw those doghouses. Squat red ones, tall, roomy ones—they lit my imagination every time, and I could just picture lazy dogs savoring the shade from the Carolina sun. The guy who sold the doghouses sat on a bowed picnic bench. He waved when I drove past, one of those slow waves where his hand is in the air a little longer than strictly necessary. But now my eye is on the navigator. I watch that blue triangle follow the road. When the navigator says "turn," I turn. If someone's selling doghouses, I don't know about it.

Here's the paradox of progress. I want the technology. I'm not giving up my GPS navigator now that I know how neatly it gets me back on track. But I also recognize what is lost. Not just with the navigator, but with anything that makes our lives a little easier, distances us a bit more from what's real and concrete. I didn't grow up milking my family's own cows the way my husband did. And, really, I wouldn't choose to. I never had to go out in the rain and milk the cow. But I also never sent warm milk in a graceful white arc into the open, waiting mouth of a kitten. That's the price; that's the deal.

When I think back to that restaurant in France, I can't recall its name. I'm not sure what I ate. I'm not even completely positive that the village was Cabriès. But I remember our guide pedaling furiously, leading us past houses with shutters bleached from the sun. I remember the way, twisting out of his seat, he glanced back to make sure we were still with him. What I remember most clearly is the brief connection we had with him, the kindness that we never would have found if we hadn't first gotten lost.

Jody Mace blogs at and is working on a comic novel for kids.


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