Lost Without Recollection

Here comes another attack on technology. I can’t help myself; things have gotten absurd.

It’s not that the tool isn’t good. For the right application, it can be very useful. However, like buying a field mower to maintain a center-city plot of grass, our chase for the latest and biggest has as run us right past common sense.

GPS. Global positioning systems. The Garmin. The talking dashboard. The I-can’t-tell-where-I’m-going-without-her box that, in my opinion, is the new “boob tube,” a nickname once reserved for the mind-numbing television set.

Yes, if you are a salesperson who must mow a large territory or if you are a scientist who needs to document your remote location via satellite, you should have a GPS. But if you are a parent driving back and forth between local rivalry soccer fields, you do not need a GPS. You need to have a friendly conversation with a live person who can tell you how to get there. You need to look at $5 map instead of programming a $200 machine.

Still, to each his or her own. Except that stupidity frightens me. Not only do I fear for my future, I worry about people. And today’s overuse of dashboard GPS products is about as stupid as firing up a 70″ tractor to pass over a 36″ piece of ground. I’ve heard of stories in which drivers, following the digital instructor, have crashed after turning onto roads that didn’t exist. A good friend of mine–an otherwise intelligent and perceptive gal–allowed her GPS to get her lost inside in a very harsh neighborhood, one that was so bad a police officer saw her, came to her aid, and escorted her out of town.

Logical intelligence is being traded for gadgetry dependence.

Both those examples were hearsay. But last summer I came face-to-face with a nearly tragic example. Were it not for the kindness of a brave bystander, the outcome would have been worse.

I was camping in a wooded Pennsylvania State Park with friends. So spread out were the hiking routes that you had to drive to the trail heads if you didn’t want to spend more time hiking to them than on them. My friend, Jane, and I set off in her hybrid Ford for a short, late-afternoon excursion to see some of the park’s most impressive waterfalls, including one that was 94 feet high.

We climbed the steep trail and oohed and awed and snapped photos and breathed in the lovely scent. Then, we climbed back to the parking lot. The sun was falling toward dusk. Exhilarated, Jane said, “Hey, while we’re out here, do you mind if I stop by the payphone to check in at home? There’s no cell service out here.”

(For those who don’t know, a pay phone is metal box with a wired handset and buttons numbered zero to nine. You put coin money into a slot so you can place a call.)

“Absolutely not,” I said. “Sounds like a good idea.”

The phone hung outside the park office, which was closed since it was after 7pm. Knowing the weather bulletin was accessible in the foyer, I walked inside while she dialed. I snapped a photo of the threat of thunderstorms to report to my friends back at camp. On my way out, I met a young man. Our conversation was a little chaotic, because he was a little panicked. Did I work there? Did I know how to reach a ranger? Could I point out where we were on the map? Isn’t there some sort of emergency number to call?

The severity of his dilemma came out eventually. He was completely lost and nightfall was coming. The three others with him looked tired. “I’m never going to get my family back to the car before dark,” he said hopelessly.

“Where is your car parked?” I asked.

“It’s in the lot where you must cross the road and then there are bridges and then a trail….” None of that sounded familiar to me. I desperately searched my mind so I could help him.

By now Jane had finished talking with her family, and she walked up to see what was happening. “They need help and there is no way to reach a ranger,” I explained. He repeated his story while his family rested on a wooden bench. The young girl swung her feet, the mom remained calm, sweaty, and collected, and the teenage boy showed no emotion at all.

“Well, I can give you ride,” Jane said in the same emphatically helpful way she approaches most situations. While I was still trying to picture bridges to a trail, Jane dove right into a carefree and generous solution. It seemed obvious this was not a ploy to hurt us, but it was notable that risk or inconvenience never caused Jane to hesitate. Old-fashioned humanity came first.

I wasn’t sure how we were going to fit anyone else into a vehicle stuffed with camping gear. Jane quickly determined that the best thing to do was to drive him to his car so that he could come back and pick up his family.

“Oh my God; thank you.” He looked as if he might cry.

“So, where are you parked?” she repeated my earlier question.

“I don’t know…bridges…cross a road.”

“Is it the Beech Lot?”

“I have no idea.”

“Hmm. Okay; it’s probably the Lakeside Lot. Let’s try. We piled in, waved to his slightly worried-looking family on the wooden bench, and yelled, “We’ll be right back.” In the review mirror, I saw them walking toward a water fountain.

But as we drove, Dad just kept repeating his description and nothing looked familiar.

“Jane, can I have that park map?” I asked. I scoured the 8 1/2 by 11-inch photocopy for other parking lots. “I bet he’s parked down on Route 118.” I turned to the stranger in the back seat. “Did you come in on 487 or 118?”

“I don’t know; my wife used GPS and just told me where to turn.”

“Did you come in from the north or the south?”

“I have no idea.”

“What towns did you pass through?

“No idea…GPS.”

“We gotta’ give it a shot; he must be all the way down in that lower lot.”

Mind you, this was NOT around the corner. He was probably parked on the other side of 13,000 acres. The road would take us six miles down to an elevation that was more than 1,000 feet lower than where we found him.

Along the way, he began to recognize things. “We were here,” he almost shouted. “This is where we came out of the woods when we knew it was getting dark. We were told the trail would loop back down, but it never did. I had to get my family out of the woods. Then some guy told us to turn around. We should have kept walking.”

I assured him that it was best he turned around, because we were only about a half-mile into our six-mile journey. “This is going to be a little bit of drive. The road veers away from the park for a bit.”

The Ford’s transmission hummed while the low gear prevented us from flying down the hill. We passed a ranger’s truck with no ranger it in it as well as a runaway truck ramp (an uphill clearing onto which a truck that has lost its brakes could make an emergency landing). We passed trees and more trees until we finally got to the bottom, where we turned left in hopes that we were headed to the right parking lot. Still, since he hadn’t walked all the way down the mountain, this section once again was unfamiliar.

“Let’s hope you just came in from the other way,” Jane said in a reassuring tone. I think she was trying to ease her own mind even more than the stranger’s. People were likely wondering where the heck we were, and we were both in an unspoken thirst for that post-hike beer.

The backseat stranger said, “This is not like me. I know how to read a map. I thought this loop would be clearly marked. I’ve got to keep my family safe. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail soon, but I guess I’m going to have to get better at orienteering. There’s no way we would have made it back to the car!”

The closer we got, the more he seemed to think this was the correct place.

“It should be coming up on the right,” I said.

“Yes. Yes. This looks like it. Oh my God; I think this is it.”

“Are you going to kiss your car when you find it?” I joked.

“Absolutely,” he said. “There it is; that silver Jeep.”

The next few moments were filled with a flood of sincere gratitude and relief. “How can I get in touch with you? I want to pay you.”

There was no way Jane would have accepted it; her reward was already received. Heightened by his appreciation, the chance to make a positive difference in a stranger’s day was more than enough payback for her.

“Do you know how to get back?”

“I think so.”

I began describing the two turns, when Jane simply said, “Just follow us.”

This time the hybrid complained, unable to exceed 35 mph. “Take your time,” I kept urging her. “You don’t want to wreck your transmission over a good deed.” We knew the silver Jeep behind us was anxious to get to its destination, but this was a hill that couldn’t be rushed.

Once at the park office, we waved happily to the family as they climbed into the car, their ordeal finally over. I was proud of my friend. I’m not sure I’d have realized the gravity of their situation as quickly as she did or be as willing to get involved. I was still stuck on getting a ranger’s help by the time Jane had clicked her seat belt.

But while it was all happiness and gratitude, I couldn’t get over how an individual who clearly displayed a love for his family and a respect for his responsibilities as a father could not begin to describe where he had been beyond the scenery he witnessed when he got there. I began to understand why he, when we were looking at the map back at the ranger’s office, couldn’t figure out where he was. All he knew was that he was far from where he started and that he should probably head downhill.

Because Jane had a paper map and because I was familiar with that paper–my guide for the weekend–the three of us are not still driving around looking for a parking lot across the road from a trail with bridges.

In a society that continues to invent new tools to find its way, I see that we are becoming increasingly disoriented. Thankfully there are still a few map-reading humans such as Jane and me alive in this world, people who are willing to help when the way-finding computers fall out of reach.