Sometimes the traveling companion you trust the most dumps you the hardest on the side of the road.
"What the ’"very bad word?’" I yelled at my iPhone as I pulled off the interstate and veered onto a decrepit road in northern Indiana. "Whhhy would you send me to Peoria, Ind.?"
The iPhone retorted, "Rerouting, rerouting, rerouting."
Since leaving Chicago that day, I'd been blissfully cruising along for several hours, my newfound self-confidence steering the wheel to my next destination: Peoria, Ill. The smartphone was taking care of the directions; I was in charge of temperature control and music selection -- an equal partnership.
Despite the gadget's highly evolved mapping skills, I made sure to register my surroundings. Not as navigational points, mind you, but as possible sightseeing opportunities. Memo to self and iPilot: On the return trip, let's track down Michael Jackson's childhood home in Gary, Ind.
My high spirits began to sink, however, when I noticed signs for Indianapolis. The mood in the car turned from light and sunny to stormy and angry.
"IPhone," I seethed, "we are traveling in the wrong direction."
As trucks rumbled past, kicking up gravel, I slowly scrolled down to the last line of the step-by-step directions. At the bottom they read "Indiana" -- not the state I was aiming for.
I knew that I could flip around, head west-southwest and still glide into the Land of Lincoln's Peoria before dark. I could unstick us from this muck, with a little help from my unreliable friend.
The mistake had cost me significant time and gas, but I suffered an even greater casualty that day: Somewhere off Interstate 80, I lost my innocence.
Abandoned and shaken, I could no longer ignore the stark reality: My trusted sidekick had failed me miserably. Now I was in charge. But where, oh where, was I?
And how in the world did I get here?
Less than two years ago, before I acquired a smartphone, I was a skittish navigator with a broken inner compass.
For drives in unfamiliar territory, I would print out directions from point A to B to C, but also from A to AA to B/C to D, in anticipation of any "spontaneous" changes to my itinerary. The interior of my car resembled a Kinko's hit by a mistral. White sheets littered the floor (completed legs), blanketed the passenger seat (routes in progress) and flowed out of door pockets (future instructions)
Despite the pre-planning tactics, I still got lost. I would blow past a street or misplace a page or start second-guessing Google Maps and follow road signs instead. Eventually, those would desert me, too. In St. Louis, I swear an imp was messing with the signage. After a few figure-eights, the Gateway Arch finally appeared above, a gray rainbow rising through a cloud of confusion.
When I had driven myself into hopeless knots, my fallback strategy was to roll down the window and start shouting at passersby for directions. But I couldn't trust them, either. To the Philadelphia man who smelled of stale cigarettes: That road did not lead to Sesame Place!
Of course, this ragtag method is pocked with disadvantages and frustrations. Choosing an oracle requires a skillful eye. He or she must be a local and semi-articulate, traits that can be hard to distinguish when you're moving at 25 mph. (I'd often single out dog-walkers, guys in trucker hats and mail carriers.) Unfortunately, sometimes incredibly helpful people gave me incredibly bad directions. In Dallas, a diner waitress dripping with honey sent me orbiting around the beltway in search of my hotel. The next day, I passed the same restaurant and realized the error of her way.
The timing is also crucial. I'd usually roll down my window at the yellow and open my mouth the second the light turned red -- for optimum conversation time. The downside: Once the light changed to green, the words would scatter in the wind like dandelion seeds. I'd often catch, "Take a left at the McDonald's and go . . ." Whoosh.
On occasion, a kind soul would take me by the bumper and lead me out of the labyrinth. I would follow his or her taillights until a finger appeared in the air, pointing to the road I was supposed to follow. To the white pickup truck in Vicksburg, Miss.: I owe you a Sheetz coffee for the "lift" to the Civil War battlefield.
Every few years, my father, whose Magellan gene apparently skipped a generation, would offer to buy me a GPS unit. And every few years, I would decline his papa bear offer, although I did recently accept his gift of a compass. One day, I will actually take it out of its plastic bag.
My polite refusal usually involved some romanticized explanation about how I savor the serendipity of travel, the thrill of unfettered adventure. But, to be honest, I believe that a GPS device would drag me deeper into the dark. I've heard many anecdotes about how the equipment sends its faithful on circuitous routes involving back roads or dodgy neighborhoods.
A GPS unit seemed superfluous: I didn't need a screen with a suction cup to do what I had been accomplishing on my own for countless years.
Then I discovered the iPhone. I don't remember just when its mapping feature freed me from the shackles of directional decisions. But I do know that I've relied on the gadget in Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Colorado, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and California.
Now, as a dedicated member of the iCult, I'm hopelessly dependent.
Until recently, I'd never questioned my leader. I followed with blind loyalty. Several times, my devotion nearly sabotaged my better judgment. For a trip to the Jersey Shore, a rental car agent offered me a free upgrade to a convertible. I was ecstatic -- until I noticed that the charger outlet didn't work. I feared the worst (the "battery power low" warning) and almost turned back to trade in the perfect summer beachmobile for an airless box that could nurture my smartphone.
Of course, some of its idiosyncracies irk me. Like when the voice suddenly falls silent. Or the map freezes on the screen and doesn't advance. Or when it tells me to start north or east on so-and-so street even though it knows full well that I left my compass at home in a shopping bag. And when Apple replaced Google Maps a few years ago with a lesser product, I nearly begged my upgrade-phobic mother to swap phones with me. Thankfully, the company fixed its potholes.
The problem, unfortunately, is now me. I have become as helpless as a baby in the back seat. I have no awareness of geography, no idea of the bread-crumb trail from here to there. I'm disengaged from the navigational process of my travels. If the gadget says that we're going to Indiana instead of Illinois, I nod my sleepy head.
It could have been worse: I could have ended up 1,800 miles away in Peoria, Ariz. But I knew that I could never again trust the iPhone without any oversight. So, on my second attempt, I typed in the name of my hotel, not the city. According to the gadget's search engine, there is no Mark Twain Hotel in Peoria, Ind. But there is one in Chicago.
You wouldn't dare, iPhone. Would you?