The Lethal Lure of GPS (and Portland Street Food)

by Ken on August 18, 2012

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.

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Judy Mintz August 18, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Very timely. We’re heading to Wyoming for a week on Monday and I just grabbed the GPS out of our Prius so we’d remember to bring it with us (not knowing we could have specified that as an add-on when renting a car, which has already been done). I’m now relieved that my husband has spent the last week pouring over Google earth to see where everything is in relation to everything else out there. I owe him an apology, which I better go make.

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