Good ol’ road atlas out-maps GPS any day

We all like to joke about people who use GPS navigation on an island. How lost can you get with one highway? For the past three months we have been navigating the mainland with GPS, or more correctly online direction navigation.

It can be quite useful because it knows about current conditions, but also frustrating. About half the time it takes you directly from where you are to the desired destination. It is the other half that frustrates. Contrary to advertising there is not 4G service everywhere. In West Texas there was no service at all for over 100 miles. Not even for a basic cellphone. There might be analog, but I discarded that phone 20 years ago. Come to think of it, there was rarely even a landline. Even where service is pretty good, there are gaps and the system loses track of one’s position and begins a totally new set of directions, sometimes starting with a U-turn!


Sometimes it seems to be working perfectly leading from the start point to the destination in what might be the quickest, but not necessarily the shortest route. It is rarely the simplest route, and sometimes goes right past the front door to end up at the back fence! Sometimes the route is unnecessarily complicated. “Turn right, turn left” six times instead of “turn right, go six blocks, turn left.” Sometimes it chooses a path only suitable for llamas, or that ends in the wrong state.

In San Antonio we asked the phone navigation for the nearest Walmart it said “2.4 miles,” but led us in a complete figure 8 back past the start point and started again. Now anyone knows that when a computer gets confused, reboot. We did; it then led us in a different circle back to the start point. Picked a different Walmart and after no less than 18 turns through two residential neighborhoods we arrived at a Walmart, loading dock of course, not the front door. I think maybe Siri is dyslexic.

Sometimes the street name that the web knows does not coincide with the name on the signs, especially in Virginia where every single bit of pavement has a state number, but the name changes from block to block. The instruction can be “Turn left on Boundary Street” and it’s a five-point intersection with no signs.

At least when it fails, it is willing to try again, and again and again.

It gets really exciting in Virginia because the “freeways” have toll booths at apparently random locations. If you do not subscribe to EasyPass you have 1 second to figure out which lane takes cash. After paying you have to try to assert your right-of-way over impatient locals who will not yield a lane. Every driver in the DC area, it seems, believes he is more important than anyone else.

Our savior many times was the good old Rand McNally Road Atlas. Buy a new one for every trip involving more than one state. You get a much better idea of relative location, proximity or distance by looking at a full page map instead of a tiny screen. Checking the paper map helps you predict where the directions should lead. It has never let us down or mislead us. Unfortunately, the number of new roads is overwhelming the medium. Next time we’ll get the large scale edition.


Maps have the useful property of showing you stuff you don’t know is there, or even think to ask about. Oh look, there’s a state park campground nearby. The Civil Rights Museum is only 10 blocks from here. (By the way, that site should be on every syllabus). Some of the most interesting things we have seen (things we had never heard of) were a little red dot on a map page, with a title. See the USA it’s great!

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a semi-monthly column for West Hawaii Today. Email