To GPS or not to GPS … a look at technology and the outdoors


Growing up in la casa de Zaktansky, there were few words that riled up Dad more than “calculator,” especially when math homework was involved.

Even when the teachers allowed calculators to be used for homework — they even encouraged it a few times — Dad would veto their blessing. He would remind my brother and me that using a calculator didn’t help us learn how to do the problem in our own heads.

He wanted us to be free thinkers and not reliant on anything but our own mind … I just wanted to get my homework done quickly and with as little effort as possible. It just didn’t seem fair!

Technology has certainly come a long way from the days of simple calculators. Computers, tablets, internet, iPhones, electronic parking assist, digital cameras with instant upload, elaborate video game systems and so much more. None of those items existed when I was fumbling through my times tables in elementary school.

There is even technology tailored to the outdoors enthusiasts. Have you seen what they’ve done with depth finders? Digital trail cameras? Geocaching is a popular new way to explore our outdoors nooks and crannies. There are apps for cell phones that can give you the exact weather breakdown for your next fishing excursion, help you plan a camping trip, allow you to play realistic hunting games and even call in turkeys, coyotes or other wildlife for you while hunting. Seriously — there’s an app for that.

All this technology, though, comes at a price.

I was extremely excited when I got my first cell phone, and even more pumped to discover it had a built-in phone book/contacts list. I spent quite a while updating the list with numbers for all my friends and relatives. However, it wasn’t long until that contacts list became a crutch. Once upon a time I had numerous phone numbers catalogued away in my brain — now I can’t even fill out the reference section of a job application without reaching for the cell phone.

What happened to feeling the excitement and pride of calling in a gobbler with an “old-fashioned” box call? How many people can still enjoy a day outdoors and be able to notice the signs of an approaching storm when their cell phone’s service bars go blank? How long will it be when the majority of people use scanner apps to identify a bird song, animal track or mysterious pile of scat in the backyard? What is so wrong with using a map?

Technology has its place and I’m just as fascinated with the next new high-tech toy as the next guy, but I am also pretty proud of the fact that I can live without it.

Recently, I spent five days with my older daughter as a counselor at a children’s camp near Johnstown. No internet. No weather reports. No video games, Facebook or Twitter feeds. That was all replaced with rock climbing, canoeing, nature walks with the kids while letting them play with my turkey box call, natural rock slides, swimming in the pool, fellowship with some pretty neat people and some very impressive rallies focused on spiritual commitment/revitalization.

Was I totally tech-free those five days? Not exactly. There was some texting going on with my amazing wife at home and a phone call home each night. It was the longest we have been apart since meeting more than 13 years ago. Technology had its place in keeping me sane those five days. Again, this post isn’t an attempt to tar-and-feather the concept of high-tech gizmos and gadgets. Many things are good in moderation.

Except GPS. For some reason, I just can’t bring myself to accept the concept of GPS. Perhaps its because I’m old-fashioned — remember, I’m the guy who grew up in a world without words such as Google and Verizon. To me, an Android was a half-man, half-robot creature from old Star Trek episodes — not a type of cell phone. We used things called “phone booths” back in the day. It was such a barbaric world!

We also had paper maps — not Google maps — and we learned to use them quite well. At a previous job, I had to market an adolescent group home to youth officials in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. One time, a collegue went along and was dumbfounded when she realized we left armed with just a street address and a map.

Like using calculators to do all the math work, relying on GPS can zap a person’s ability to navigate — whether it is using a street map while driving around or finding the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) when outdoors with no compass or other handy device. Do we really need a robotic voice instructing us when to turn, where to turn and how far until the next turn.

And GPS is far from fool-proof. We’ve lived in a remote part of Snyder County for more than five years and no one has been able to find our home using GPS yet. They punch in our home address and ultimately find themselves on a totally different road, traveling the wrong way and calling us for some “old-fashioned” directions. Several times, my wife and I have started giving someone directions to our house and they cut us off, saying they’ll just program our address into their GPS. We warn them, and they blow it off. They have GPS. They got it covered — until they’re lost on the back roads of rural Snyder County and panicking with every new bend in the road and every dwindling bar of service on their cell phones.

Maybe that is why I find myself loathing GPS … because of the people who think that having the technology makes them better than we less-civilized folk. They brag about their Tom Toms and Garmins. They see me unfolding a paper map on the side of a highway exit ramp and look at me like I’m suffering from a highly contagious strain of the Bubonic Plague.

But in the end, they’re the ones missing out.  Like processing your own deer during hunting season or hand-chopping firewood, there is a certain amount of pride from being self-sufficient.

As our five-day children’s camp came to a close, a colleague who was going the same direction offered to lead the way because she already “had the route programmed” in to her GPS.

Before hopping in the van and pulling out of the driveway first, I smiled, tapped on my temple and simply said: “So do I … right here.”

~ by zaktansky on June 29, 2013.

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