A Most Amazing Thing

by

Jeff Hughes


Charlottesville, Virginia is a pleasant little town. It’s the old stomping ground of Thomas Jefferson, he of founding-father fame. And the university which he begat still colors the surrounding community with the youth and vigor and openness to new things which are common to college towns.

Alas, its roads suck. It bestrides rt. 29 – the primary north-south artery thorough central Virginia – like a sick colossus, determined to make the errant traveler pay.

Which is why we are avoiding the place altogether.

Hidden among the faint swirls written into old maps, there exists an alternative. A tiny little secondary road which hooks far westward, and then south, looping around the urban metropolis and avoiding all that mess of traffic. My riding buddies and I optimistically refer to it as “The Charlottesville Bypass”, though it’s a strange bypass that takes twice as long to get somewhere. Only a motorcyclist, more interested in the quality of time than its quantity, would appreciate it.

Since I’m the lone Virginian in the group – the rest of my buddies are from Pennsylvania and other points north – I’m in the lead. Our destination, on the first day of this 5-day adventure, is a bucolic little bed and breakfast a ways down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Supposedly, I know where I’m going.

Or maybe not.

The “bypass” is not well marked. And to stay on the route you have to be careful to make several turns. I know I’ve made a mistake when I go flying around a corner only to find the pavement has suddenly turned to gravel. Nope, this ain’t it.

Jim, the rider behind me, and I do a quick U-turn and start heading back. A mile up the road, at the intersection where I should have turned left, the rest of our party is patiently waiting. Earle, who had been running third, had correctly divined the correct route. He knew we’d be back.

“Have a nice ride?” he laughingly quips.

“Yeah, what a terrific road!” I laugh in return.

Earle is the normal road captain of our little group. He takes off, once again assuming his accustomed place at the front. But not before I glance down at the cockpit of his K1200S and note the GPS affixed there and the colored line on its screen clearly pointing out the correct route.

It’s a bit of an epiphany.

Several days later, after having run south most of the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoying many of the great roads in western North Carolina, I’m heading back north again. Alone this time – I’ve left a day early – it’s late morning and I need gas.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a wonderful motorcycle road for lots of reasons. But access to gas – or even just knowing where it can be found – isn’t one of them. You pretty much just end up turning off on one of the occasional side roads which intersect with it, ride down the mountain, and figure sooner or later you’ll come to a little town. I’ve drifted into town riding on fumes on more than one occasion.

I’m in no danger of that this morning, but what I do find - after finding the town, gassing up, and cooling myself down with a liter of bottled water - is that I’ve come far out of my way. Studying the paper map, I see that had I continued just a few miles further north on the BRP, a different road would have gotten me to this same town in half the distance. Not a big deal. But with a 600-mile day in front of me, I’d just as soon spend that doing quality miles – not the 20 miles of hot, mostly-straight road I’d just run, stuck behind a slow-moving pickup truck. As I tuck the map back into my tank bag and mount back up, my mind goes back to Earle and his GPS.

 

The box containing the Garmin Zumo 550 arrived a week later. Ironically, before I even had a chance to mount it on my bike, my wife Ginny and I had the opportunity to try it in the car, using the included windshield mount. We had a funeral to go to.

Like most guys who’ve lived in a particular area for a while, I’ve always felt I have a pretty good handle on the local roads. As motorcyclists, we’re especially attuned to them, after all. In this case I was quite smug about the time and distance involved in getting to the funeral home. I knew exactly how the Zumo would route us.

I was more than a little taken aback then, when, halfway there, the friendly little woman’s voice coming out of the GPS unit said to turn right.

“That can’t be”, I said. But she was quite emphatic. Ginny laughed. “You better do what she says”, she said.

So I did. A few miles later she had me turn left, down a scraggly-assed road I had never heard of or been on. And within a hundred feet I had two thoughts. The first was that I have to bring my bike back here. The second was that this GPS thing might have more going for it than I had thought.

 

I’m not at all a Luddite. Look at what technology has brought to our sport – everything from sophisticated engine and suspension technologies to amazing braking systems to user-selectable engine mappings to truly exceptional tire designs – and one is hard-pressed not to see the enormous advantages inherent in those things.

But I also tend to be very focused when I’m out riding. I’m not at all into gadgets. Radios and music players and intercom systems and cell phones and CB’s and the host of similar devices that riders sometimes attach to their bikes have always struck me as not-so-benign distractions. I’d prefer to keep my attention directed towards the road, thank you very much.

And so when the first motorcycle GPS units began appearing some years ago, I mentally pegged them in the same category. Just another distraction to avoid.

I’ve now been convinced otherwise.

My overarching philosophy of riding – that one’s attention must remain unequivocally on the road – hasn’t changed at all. That remains as true as ever - especially as our pace increases. But I’ve found that a GPS can confer two very important advantages.

First, it can find new roads for us. After having used my Zumo for a couple of months, I’ve disabused myself of the notion that I know the roads around where I live as well as I once thought I did. It’s almost uncanny how the routing on a GPS unit will find roads you’ve never been on. Some of those roads will be entirely forgettable, of course. But some of them are true gems – out-of-the-way routes that almost no one knows about. I’ve always enjoyed “exploring” – turning down a road that I’ve never been on and seeing where it goes. Unfortunately, a lot of those roads turn to dirt or gravel some ways further along; and a lot them simply dead-end. A GPS allows you to do that kind of exploration without, mostly, worrying about those things.

The second thing a GPS unit can do is to actually free up some of the attention that we otherwise spend in navigation. We’ve all had occasions where we’re headed some place in particular and we end up looking around for landmarks, street addresses, and other such cues. We end up spending part of our attention – and sometimes a lot of it – on navigating rather than paying attention to the road and to traffic. A GPS will tell you at a glance how far until the turn is, allowing you to quickly return your focus to that SUV piloted by the soccer mom with the cell phone in her ear.

 

A dozen years ago, on one of our first trips to Deals Gap, some pals and I were stopped, hours after darkness had fallen. We were tired, cold, and hungry after a long, wet, and foggy 500-mile day in Appalachia. We still had a couple hours in front of us – we thought. The road that we had been on had turned to gravel a few miles back; and then even that had petered out into but a rough dirt trail. We were clearly lost.

The maps and Delorme atlases came out, illuminated with a couple of flashlights, and much discussion ensued. We eventually got it all sorted, of course. We finally made it to the hotel that night, got some food, and eventually enjoyed that end-of-the-day brew. And it’s also true that that was a memorable evening – in a twisted sort of way.

But I think I’ll take a GPS next time. And find other ways to make the ride exciting.


© 2007 Jeff Hughes