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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

A New Star in My Heaven —
GPS and Me: An Unlikely Romance

By Farwell Forrest

December 26, 2006

I'm not exactly a fan of electronic navigation. Of course, this won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's paddled along in the same boat with Tamia and me over the years. I've even written a series of articles on traditional navigation under the collective title "Navigating Without Batteries." Now, however, it's time for me to 'fess up. There's a new love in my life: a tiny Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, one of the latest offspring in the Garmin line. Her progenitors christened her eTrex® Vista Cx, but I've always thought of her as "Chip," in rueful recognition of the fact that she has a silicon chip where her heart ought to be. Well, OK. Maybe this thing between Chip and me isn't love, exactly. It's more like a flirtation. Exciting, but not necessarily permanent. Still, our relationship has already moved on. And it's definitely a lot more than a one-night stand.

But I'm getting ahead of my story. I'd better start at the beginning. Chip entered my life unexpectedly, on loan from a generous employer. You could say she came to me on the rebound, I suppose. At first I kept her at arm's length, fearing that any new relationship would engender jealousy in all my old loves: map, compass, and sextant. After just a few days, however, Chip had navigated her way unerringly into my affections, and before long we were going out everywhere together. On the road. On the water. Through the woods. To say I was astonished by the range and scope of her talents would be putting it mildly. Chip showed me things that I'd never dreamed were possible. To begin with, she always knew how to find me. Instantly. Or near enough as made no difference. And once she'd locked onto her guiding stars, there was no shaking her off. Plus, I only had to look at her to know exactly where I stood. I could read her face like a map. In fact, her face is a map. And what a map! Based on the USGS 1:100,000 "metric" series, it's a topographic map of the United States, or as much of it as I care to ask Chip to hold on to for me. The 32-megabyte TransFlash™ card she had when we first met contained detailed maps of all of New York state north of the Mohawk River. That was impressive enough, particularly as my paper quads of the same area fill two drawers of a filing cabinet to overflowing. But the one-gigabyte card that I later gave her as a keepsake goes a lot farther. It can swallow every quad we'd need on a cross-country trip — even if we went the long way round.

And this is just what Chip and I are thinking about doing. Maps and dreams are inextricably linked, after all. That's true whether or not the map is printed on paper. In an unguarded moment, Chip showed me the sweep of country lying between my own corner of the humid northeastern US and the Great American Desert. This set my bump of exploration to twitching immediately. Suddenly, I was afire with longing, consumed by the desire to traverse the intervening miles. Not passively, however. Not by car or bus or train. No. I want to do the whole trip by boat and bike. To map the watersheds of America's Southeast, South, and West by the seat of my pants, so to speak. To get up close and personal with the land of my birth.

But we can't start immediately. It's the dead of winter, for one thing. Not the most auspicious season to begin a cross-country bike and boat trip. In the meantime, though, Chip and I are spending every minute we can in each other's company. And she never ceases to delight me, especially on our bike trips together. For quite a while now, I've been scouting paddling destinations on my bike. This isn't some sort of romantic quest, you understand. Nope. It's hard-headed New England practicality. I see a lot more at 15 miles per hour than I do at 55. My "amphibious" scouting trips seldom take me more than 60 miles from home base, but each one introduces me to new waterways, many of them streams and ponds I've driven past dozens of times before. I just never noticed them — until I rode by on my bike, that is. There are other benefits, too. It feels good to pass gas stations without stopping, and the bathroom mirror tells me every morning that the sweaty hours I've spent making the cranks go round haven't been wasted. All in all, my amphibious scouting trips represent a mighty good return on investment. But it's the awareness of the landscape that matters most. Whether I'm on a bike or in a boat, less escapes my eye when I travel slowly.

This was one of the reasons why I resisted Chip's advances at first. I was afraid she'd get between me and my first love — the wild world I go paddling (and cycling) to see. I was afraid I'd be seduced by Chip's pretty face, in other words, and that I'd take my eyes off the real prize. But the joke was on me. I couldn't have been more wrong. Chip has opened my eyes. Now that she and I are traveling together, I see much more. She tells me when there's a river hidden beyond the "beauty strip" of pines the loggers have left along the shoulder of the road. She lets me know that the little rill I've just crossed on a culvert is actually the headwater of a stream that I've long wanted to explore. She draws my attention to the pocket bog concealed in the fold between two eskers, completely invisible from my present perch on a beaver dam. What's more, she does all this right now. I don't have to stop to consult the map tucked away in my pack, or risk having it snatched out of my hands by a gust of wind or wetted to a pulp by a rain shower. And Chip's there for me whenever I want her. She's always in my face, in other words, but in the nicest possible way. All I have to do is turn my head to look at her, and she shows me everything, no matter what the hour — or the weather. Chip defies the gales to do their worst, and she laughs at even the hardest downpour. It's true that I have to feed her, of course, but a few AA cells are a small price to pay for what she gives me.

I can never forget that ours is just a flirtation, though. Chip's silicon heart is fickle. She could abandon me anytime the mood came over her. In fact, she's already strayed a few times, leaving me in the lurch just when I wanted her most. The counselors at Garmin's technical support center put this inconstancy down to firmware problems, but I think I know better. Chip's too much of a flirt to stay faithful to any man for very long. So I keep map and compass beside me at all times, and my sextant comes with me, too, whenever it might be needed. After all, what sort of man would desert his old flames for a new mistress? Not me, at any rate. And anyway, Chip's not the marrying kind.

Still, I have to admit I'm having a great time. For as long as it lasts.…

Put it down to a belated midlife crisis, if you want. Whatever you call it, I've fallen hard for a most unlikely lady: a tiny GPS receiver. Our relationship can't last forever — Chip's just not made that way — but while we're together I see more (and do more) than I would on my own. It isn't true love, I know, but I've stumbled onto a pretty good thing nonetheless. You could even say that Chip's the newest star in my heaven. She'll most likely fade in time, but for now I'm happy. I'm not greedy. I don't ask for anything more.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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