Here is Here, There is There

A map of the in-between

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Contributing Editor Peter Jones shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

GPS is making me stupid. The problem is, when using it I’m never lost, but at the same time I have no idea where I am. GPS has eliminated that annoying necessity of being aware of reality.

When I use GPS, some lady I’ve never met tells me where to go. If I do what she says, I magically arrive at my destination. But no longer is there a landscape of identifiable locations between here and there, between where I began and where I end up. A destination is no longer a place with a comprehensible spatial relationship to a point of origin; it’s a rabbit in a magician’s hat. GPS is the magician. I’m a dupe in the audience. If I listen to the lady, eventually she shows me the rabbit. Geography is no longer relevant.

GPS teaches us to forget how to read a map. I used to be map literate. GPS is like having a book read to you, forever, encouraging you to forget that you ever knew how to read on your own. That’s how GPS is making me stupid. I’m getting so stupid I’m unsure if I’m still spelling GPS correctly. Since there’s no way that I was willing to try to look at a little moving map while riding a motorcycle, I set a course, put my GPS (iPhone) into my jacket pocket, and listened to that lady through earphones. She knows how to get places and isn’t a bad passenger, but I’ve a strong distaste for backseat drivers (riders) when I’m on a motorcycle. Anyway, she got me where I needed to go. But from that ride on, I’ve sworn off GPS, unless I’m in one of those four-wheeled devices.

In short, if the journey is more important than the destination, then GPS is worthless. The whole point of GPS is to sacrifice the ride to the efficiency of arriving. It’s best used by truckers.

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Peter Jones Bike LifeCycle World

Without GPS, I can get lost. I like getting lost. It’s largely why I ride. But it’s the kind of lost where I still generally know where I am. That’s because, before I start riding, I look at a big piece of paper that has roads drawn all over it. It’s a miniature, pretend version of where I am, allowing me to plan. So being lost is relative. Being lost only means that the ride might be longer than I’d initially guessed. That’s generally a good thing. Basically, if someone hasn’t asked for my passport, I’m still in the USA. Beyond that, there’s not much I need to know.

I’ve also determined that I’m fortunate to be from a weird family of map lovers. We have conversations like this: “That turn on Route 90 in Cleveland by the waterfront is way too sharp. They need to fix that.” Or, “You know when you’re passing through Richmond, Virginia, on Interstate 95, and the Museum of the Confederacy is up on the hill to the west; that section is urban yet picturesque.” My family is so spatially literate that you’d think we were raised by squirrels.

What a map can do that GPS can’t is provide a picture to live on for a whole day, not just until you, “Turn left in a quarter mile.” It gives an overview that can be memorized, referenced at lunch, discussed, modified. I like riding through it while carrying it in me.

There is, though, a sense of scale that maps must respect. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote of a map that an empire’s cartographers created at the same scale as the empire itself. You had to arrive at a place to see it on the map. Conversely, I once headed west across America with a rider who said he’d brought a map, so I hadn’t packed one. After a day of riding I asked to look at it. It was about 18 inches wide. Maine was on one side, California on the other. Just standing still, he and I were nearly everywhere all at once.