USING A GPS IN NEW ENGLAND – Marilyn Armstrong

When the GPS’s first came out and the prices dropped from ridiculously high to more-or-less normal, I was an immediate consumer. I was working in Groton, Connecticut which was more than 140 miles from my home.

Even though I didn’t have to go in every day, three days a week of driving 280 miles round trip with a 9 hour day in-between was a killer schedule. A lot of the roads I took were unmarked — no signs telling you what road you were on or which road you were crossing — and very small, so maps didn’t show them. I needed a GPS just to get home at night.

One night, on my way home, I got turned around in Rhode Island. I went around in circles for nearly an hour and finally called home and told them I was lost, had no idea what road I was on. What was worse, I was in the middle of nowhere, so short of calling the police — and since I couldn’t tell them where I was, I was not sure that would actually help — I might never see them again. Eventually, I found my way out of the loop and promptly bought a GPS. It was a small Tom-Tom, but with a little help from my electronic friend, I got home most nights.Since then — about 10 years ago — they have greatly improved the GPS to the point where you can’t be sure they can get you from point A to point C without taking you through golf courses, tiny, snow-filled back roads, swamps, vineyards, collapsed bridges, and roads that may have been real roads100 years ago, but clearly haven’t been used since. I know this because in the center of the road is a full-grown oak tree. It’s a dead giveaway.

So despite having a reasonably “up-to-date” GPS — a Garmin this time — I always print out a set of directions on paper. It’s why so many packages from Amazon don’t show up. Whatever GPS they are using, it seems to send the trucks down unpaved roads which when they aren’t buried in snowdrifts are socked in by mud, sometimes quick-mud (quicksand, but a lot gooier).

To make things just that much more complicated, most of New England is phobic about road signs. When we were in San Francisco, we could find our way around because not only were there street signs on every corner, but they would have a sign two streets ahead to warn you of an upcoming street.

In New England, they refuse to tell you what road you are on and often, what town you are in. You find yourself in the humiliating position of having to ask passing strangers what the name of the town is and what road you are on.

As often as not, the person you ask can’t give you an answer because they themselves don’t know anything. They just work there. The only route they know is the one that gets them to work. On top of that, most people are clueless about giving directions.

When they try, they are wrong. They say left when they mean right and have no idea of the distances between one place and another … AND they don’t know the name of the road (not that this would be much help since there are no signs to tell you the name) or route numbers. Even if they did, the absence of signs makes it hard to know what to do.

Even using a GPS as a map without chatter, many roads supposedly have names that no one ever uses. One of our nearest roads is Route 146A. That’s what everyone calls it because its official name changes every half mile or so. Each town or area calls it something different — and a GPS doesn’t EVER use route numbers except for limited access interstate highways, probably because these don’t have names. But if they do (such as the Massachusetts Turnpike aka “the Pike” and the Merrit Parkway (aka Route 15), they will use it and when that name is not in use in a particular town, change the name to South Main Street and you will have to deduce that it’s actually the same road.

And finally, there is the issue of “go straight on the main road.” New England has no straight roads. Between hills, mini-mountains, waterways, and inconveniently placed towns, everything loops, and swings. Worse, the GPS tells you to “make a right,” but what you see is a fork and both seem to be going in the same direction — sort of rightish. There’s no sign, so take your best guess. My best guess is inevitably wrong. You’d think all you need to do to fix the error is turn around and go back, but much of the time, you can’t do that. Either the road is too narrow or you’ve stumbled onto a highway and you have to find an exit that will let you reverse directions. There are parts of the state where that is impossible. Like anywhere near Quincy (pronounced for you out-of-towners) as Quinzy. So was it John Quinzy Adams? Just asking.

Why don’t they have street signs in New England? We have all had this conversation, usually after we’ve calmed down and had something to eat and drink. Our best guess is the Yankee belief “if you don’t know where you are, why are you here?” The area isn’t set up for tourists, which is funny because tourism is one of our major industries.

This isn’t as much of a problem for people who have a sense of direction, but neither Garry nor I ever know where we are unless it’s close to home. You can’t get seriously lost in the Blackstone Valley unless you use a GPS. We don’t have a lot of roads. Maybe all told, we have a dozen “real” roads. The rest are trails, suitable for ATVs, horses … and walking your dog. They certainly aren’t intended for cars or trucks. Many of them are bordered by what looks like the ground but is really swamp mud.

Recently, Garry has been doing a lot of traveling around Massachusetts and remarkably, probably due to printed directions from Google or Mapquest, has managed to get where he is going. It’s no small miracle. Also, for reasons I don’t fully understand, when we travel together, Garry is always sure I know the way. Or at least know it better than he does.

When I point out that we are equally lost, he thinks I’m hiding something. He never believes I’m as ignorant as I am. Is that a compliment?

I need to buy a new GPS, but I’ve been putting it off. The more they “fix” the GPS maps, the harder it gets to actually find the location to which you are trying to go. GPS’s are great for long, interstate drives and arriving in a neat suburb. On the other hand, when we used to drive up to Jackman, Maine, at some point the GPS would say “no directions are available for this area.” You’re on your own and good luck. Watch out for moose.

I suppose it’s like all other software,  upgrades usually don’t improve the product. After you’ve bought a new one, you wish you’d kept the old one, even if it is inaccurate. They now have so many traffic cams in cities and suburbs so a GPS can (and does) read the wrong input. Sometimes, it shows us driving down the Charles River.

Also, for reasons best known to their designers, no matter what settings you input, they will try to send you by their idea of “the shortest route” as opposed to the route that will get you there safely and quickly.

In other words, upgrades aren’t. Moral? If the old one works, keep it until it dies. Then buy a cheap one without all the frills. It’s the maps you need, not the radio.

39 thoughts on “USING A GPS IN NEW ENGLAND – Marilyn Armstrong

  1. I am directionally challenged and always have been. I have a car equipped with a navigation system, a Garmin with updated maps, and an iPhone with Google Maps. One of them can get me where I’m going, but just in case, I still have paper maps in the glove box. 🙂

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  2. have bot got a GPS google maps here is good. though up until a few years ado we were not on it and as for GP/S we are sort of on it but not my house lol our hose just doesn’t exist.

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    • They are pretty useless in the country except for major highways. They are fine for traveling long distances on turnpikes, but useless in small towns and literally don’t know where most places are in the country. I get the warning “No information” a lot when we are past the main road, looking for a house on a back road. They don’t have the information. And it’s not like the area hasn’t always been there. It just isn’t mapped.

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  3. I am,fortunately (or was) able to find my way anywhere. I once found an aunt’s house that I’d only visited once as a 12-year-old. I was 26 when we went looking for her to say hello in a town I’d never been in since the day I’d first met her. I say was since there days my sight isn’t that good so no telling and a gps would be good to have.

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  4. Ahhh, I’m gonna buck the trend here. I have the GPS on in my truck all the time. She speaks to me with a soft, sultry, English accent and she usually gets me where I need to be.
    On another note. I went to Submarine School in Groton. That was a long time ago though. I remember lots of skinny trees. Skinny trees was how I knew I was in Connecticut.

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    • GPS’s work best in the suburbs, worst in the boonies (like here) and mediocre in big east coast cities because so many of our city roads run underground. So you lose the GPS and when you get out, you better know where to go because by the time your GPS finds satellites again, you’ll be crushed in traffic. Otherwise, they work JUST FINE 😀

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  5. David and I never tried GPS. He used to love the British car show “Top Gear” and we both laughed at their hilarious road testing of GPS in various cars. Their mishaps of being sent down dead-end streets or told to turn the wrong way onto a one-way street convinced us that GPS was not for us. We both preferred a map. Of course, we didn’t have to deal with large confusing cities except when we drove through Melbourne. I didn’t realise that you couldn’t get good maps now as I haven’t bought a new street directory or road atlas in some years. I never expect maps of Melbourne to be accurate though as they are constantly building and doing roadworks there. Only crazy people try to drive in Sydney if they don’t have to.

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    • Ditto Boston. There’s nowhere a normal person can park … sometimes even for money there is still nowhere to park. When traffic is bad, you may actually be standing still in traffic for a very long time … like an hour or more. We used to go there for medical reasons and occasionally, to take pictures. We still occasionally go to a concert or a wedding, but almost never for fun. Because it isn’t fun anymore. It was, once.

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    • My husband has trouble with it too and he is as far from digital as you can get. He just doesn’t have a good grip on how to turn the map so the roads are going the same way YOU are going. I’m pretty good with maps and enjoy them, but I think for most kids, the problem is lack of familiarity. You need to USE maps to read them well and since they live in a world full of inaccurate GPS’s which show you maps in very small dimensions, they don’t have any understanding of the distance between points or the whole “lay of the land” that you get from a map. I finally bought my granddaughter a globe that lights up at night like a huge nightlight. She loves it — and I think she is finally learning to understand the world as a globe.

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  6. I don’t really like GPS. On a very, very rare occasion I will use the one on my phone if I absolutely have to. Occasionally I will write out directions after looking at a “real” map. For the most part I have pretty good sense of direction.

    When I read the title, I thought you were going to say that when you have your GPS in speaker mode, it says things like, “You turn right about a quarter of a mile before where Hank Butterfield’s barn used to be, you know the one that burned down during that wicked bad storm in ’54. You go down a ways and take a left across form Merrill Hagardy’s haying field. ‘Course Merrill’s been dead since ’67.” I guess sending you down roads with large oak trees in the middle is pretty close…

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    • There was a saying in Israel that you knew you’d lived there too long when you gave directions using former landmarks. “Drive to where the old Zion Cinema used to be, then straight until you get to where they used to have the Davidka …” That would probably make the GPS a lot more entertaining.

      At this point, they are dull, inaccurate, and more likely to cause frustration than help you find where you are going. And of course, New England is FAMOUS for having at least two roads with the same name in every town, no matter how small and you just KNOW your GPS will take you to the one where your destination isn’t.

      Once, in Gettysburg, we had asked our Tom-Tom to get us to a local (cheap) motel. It took us to a huge graveyard (Gettysburg is full of them) and announced: “You have reached your destination.” On a more positive note, it took us to a sushi joint instead of the local diner. That was a plus.

      We are still laughing about it.

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      • Greasy spoon diner or sushi bar? The GPS had good taste 😉 There are too many roads with the same name (if you put the address of my new place on the Cape into GPS, as Dennis, you go to another house in South Dennis – you have to say “West Dennis”” to get to ours…. And there are 3 Depots in Harwich! And,as you said in the post, most roads change names every time they cross a town line, and sometimes within the same town…

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        • Other places in the country have roads with unique (at least within that town) names. Boston is awful How many Charles Streets? I know of three. There maybe more and there are others. I think there may be three Bulfinch Roads also. Even in Uxbridge, we have two Main Streets.

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          • Two Main Streets seems funny – so, which one really is the main one? I think Dennis has more than one Main Street as well, one for each of the “villages” within town – West Dennis, Dennis Port, Dennis and South Dennis. In Ohio, where I grew up, streets could change names from town to town, but they were both consistent within the town (not in New England!) and there was typically only one with the name, though there was possibility of Name Road, Name Street, Name Boulevard, Name Lane, etc…..

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    • And you obviously know your town very well. We’ll find our way locally because it’s not a big area and if you know the main roads, you will eventually find what you’re looking for, with or without directions. But Boston? They have been rebuilding Boston for 60 years. The roads change by the minute. NOT driving into Boston is a major improvement in our lives.

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        • If we had a train, I’d gladly take it. We don’t have anything but the weekly freight train which charges through town at full speed. There was once upon a time a train station that’s now a real estate office and I hear that at one time there were also buses. Not anymore.

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            • I’m so glad I still know how to use a map.., but I have to admit that GPS can be of great help about 90% of the time I choose to use it. The problem is I have a good sense of direction, and I know when that sucker is leading me astray. Me and Miss GPS then start playing a game. That’s right, I start talking back to her, ignoring her prompts, forcing her into re-calculate mode.., which I’m sure pisses her off to the max. Proud to say I’ve won most of these battles, and enjoy a BIG laugh when she manages to put one over on me. They should have a Voice prompt that says “Gotcha” when she wins, or “Ok Suckah! Wait till next time” when I win. I’ve always felt that the one feature missing on GPS units is the ability to record custom voice prompts.., now that would make those things real fun.

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  7. That made me laugh, I would be sure to get lost in your area. I don’t drive so my important position as map reader has been supplanted by sat nav. Mostly sat nav is superior to me! If we’re going to a remote bed and breakfast or renting a rural cottage, consulting Google maps before we set out is handy so we can see what our destination is going to look like – though that wouldn’t be much help if the area was covered in snow!

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