I was nearly killed yesterday on assignment in Portland, Oregon—a city not generally known for an association between the practice of journalism and violent death. I’d come to town to report a story for Reader’s Digest on a local woman who took a bad fall while climbing an 1,800-foot rock face in the Grand Tetons, and lay on a narrow ledge with several broken bones—both ankles, her pelvis, two vertebrae—as a thunderstorm threatened and night closed in. After a few tense hours, a team of rangers managed to rappel down to the victim, strap her into a full-body harness, and fly her out by helicopter as she dangled from a rope.
Although the woman and her rescuers displayed extraordinary courage, none was required of me; I just had to sit in an armchair and take notes while she talked. My brush with mortality came after lunch, as I was driving from one of Portland’s famous food-cart “pods”—specifically, the cluster of vans, wagons, trailers, and fry-shacks known as Good Food Here, in the scruffy-boho Belmont section—to one of the city’s famous beer halls. Having consumed a greasy but soul-satisfying paper-plate special (salmon saté with Asian pesto, from the Fishbox truck) and some of the best damn sorbet I have eaten in North America (one scoop of coconut-saffron and one of passionfruit-Szechuan peppercorn, from the Fifty Licks truck), I was navigating westward by GPS in my tiny rented Kia. At an intersection where two roads branched off at ambiguous angles, the robotic voice commanded me to turn right. I complied, and found myself heading the wrong way—into heavy traffic—down a one-way street.
Horns blared and vile oaths flew. By some miracle, however, I’d rounded the corner just as the light was turning red, so the oncoming cars had stopped a nanosecond before mine blundered into their path. I shifted into reverse, pantomimed apologies, and slunk off with my exhaust pipe drooping in humiliation. A few blocks later, I was gobsmacked by the magnitude of the disaster I’d evaded—and not only me, but whoever I would have rammed into, and all the loved ones who would have had to carry on after our erasure or maiming. I parked the Kia in front of the Deschutes Brewery and Public House and worked my way slowly through the six-beer sampler (I recommend the powerfully hoppy but beautifully balanced Armory XPA, and the chocolatey-fruity Black Butte XXIV cask-conditioned porter). I then tottered a few blocks to the nearest Stumptown coffee outlet and downed a giant mug of Chemex-brewed Kenya Gatomboya, which the barista touted for its wine-and-citrus bouquet but I drank solely for the caffeine.
After a couple of hours at Powell’s palatial secondhand bookstore (where I picked up a couple of reference works for my novelist wife Julie), I had recovered sufficiently from the afternoon’s upset to drive back across the Belmont Bridge to Pok Pok, where I ate Thai catfish on buttery vermicelli noodles with mint, dill, and a golden-spiced dipping sauce, and drank a refreshing rhubarb-vinegar shrub. Thence to the hotel for e-mail trolling, CNN, and the usual night-before-the-flight-home indigestion, elation, self-doubt, and insomnia—punctuated this time by visions of the cataclysmic crash that almost was.
Coincidentally, my previous story for Reader’s Digest (http://tinyurl.com/8aub9lg) was about a carload of women who were lost for three blazing days in Death Valley, thanks to a GPS unit that sent them driving in circles along unmarked dirt tracks. Reporting the piece, I learned that this is a common problem: Nav systems can be unreliable on back-country roads, because the databases for remote areas are often based on obsolete maps. But even in major cities, I’m finding, a GPS machine is a treacherous servant.
I’m a late adopter, of course, as I’ve been with every digital device that’s come along since the CD player. I started ordering a GPS unit with my rental car on reporting trips a couple of years ago, after missing a highway exit outside Dallas and driving 100 miles in the wrong direction, thereby laying waste to half a day of scheduled interviews. When I just need to get from one place to another, the talking robots invariably do the trick. It’s when I want to wander that the trouble starts.
In Portland, for example, there were a number of gustatory landmarks that I felt compelled to visit, in widely separated neighborhoods. Instead of finding them on a map and plotting my course, as I once would have, I simply punched out the addresses on the GPS keyboard. And then, instead of looking for landmarks (and pulling over occasionally to check the map), I relinquished will and discernment and obeyed the robot. Rather than engage with the streetscape outside my car windows, I responded to the unit’s hypnotic voice. When the robot said, “Turn left,” I turned left. When it said, “turn right,” I turned right.
Only the sight of those cars rushing toward me broke the trance. I’m grateful that nothing else was broken, and that I lived to eat another day.