There are few things I like more than a good historical field trip, but I’m cursed with a poor sense of direction. Hence my recent interest in automotive GPS navigation systems.
It’s something I’ve resisted for a long time, because I’ve got a Luddite streak a mile wide. I was the last member of my generation to trade my tapes for CDs, and my CDs for an iPod. Most of my cell phones have been antiques, and until pretty recently I habitualy kept my cell turned off. So I considered GPS car navigators to be more superfluous pieces of junk being foisted on a fad-crazed public.
I changed my mind after last month’s North Carolina trip. Most of the historic sites I visit are in rural areas, where you don’t have to deal a flurry of turns within a few minutes or seconds, and where it’s usually easy to turn around when you get off-track. That wasn’t the case in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, where I almost killed myself while trying to juggle printed directions and steer at the same time. Worse, on two occasions, the online directions were completely wrong, telling me to take a turn when I should’ve gone in the opposite direction. And, of course, printed turn-by-turn directions are useless if you take the wrong road or miss an exit. (I do that a lot.)
I finally decided that this was a case where there was something to be said for gadgetry, so it was off to Best Buy. I picked the TomTom One 130S, which is pretty cheap but still has a good-sized screen and speaks the actual street names.
On Saturday a friend of mine and I conducted the first field test. We headed off to a historic site neither of us had visited before, with absolutely no maps or printed directions of any kind, completely at the mercy of a 3.8-inch box with a computerized female voice.
This, my friends, was no light matter. A few years ago the two of us set out for Gettysburg with a set of Mapquest directions. We did okay until we actually got to town, at which point we circumnavigated the roundabout near the Wills House for what seemed half an hour, trying to figure out which street to turn into. Our attempt to get from our hotel to Cemetery Hill produced similarly unfortunate results, although we did get to a see a lot of things we weren’t necessarily looking for—Lee’s headquarters, the Lutheran Theological Seminary, a local resident’s spacious driveway, etc. We’re not exactly Lewis and Clark.
Luckily for us, the TomTom passed our road test with flying colors. The difference with printed directions was like night and day; in fact, the spoken directions were so spot-on and handy that I didn’t even have to look at the screen. I’m O.C.D., so I’m usually thinking about the next turn, keeping a close eye on the mile markers and my odometer, terrified that I’ll make a misstep. This time I just enjoyed the drive, knowing that the device would prompt me in time to turn or exit. When I missed a ramp on the way back, the device recalculated in seconds and got us right back on track.
Another great thing about these gadgets is that it makes your trip so much more flexible. If you’re using printed directions you’re chained to your route. Change your itinerary, and the directions become useless. With GPS, you can alter your route as much as you want. Happen to spot an exit for some out-of-the-way museum on your way to Antietam? No problem. You can hit all those spontaneous little finds and then move on to your original destination, and see everything in between. You can use the search feature to find other historic sites near the place you’re headed, or the ones along your route. You can hit every historic marker in your county, or every bivouac from your favorite campaign. The only limitations are your gas tank, your trip budget, and the number of vacation days before you’ve got to head back to work.
I’ve got only a few minor complaints. First, roads sometimes change, which requires you to update your device by plugging it into your computer from time to time. For instance, my history-related trips usually start out on US 25E. It’s the Yellow Brick Road for all those Carolina Rev War battlefields, the Tennessee frontier sites to my east, and the Shenandoah Valley and all Civil War points beyond. It’s also perennially under construction, and has been for as long as I can remember. Some of the newer road changes between Claiborne and Grainger Counties aren’t on my TomTom’s map, which is really odd, since they’ve been in place for a while and the unit itself is brand new. It wasn’t really a big deal; we just ploughed on ahead and the TomTom adjusted accordingly.
The second issue is more applicable to historic travel in particular. To plot a route, you need to enter a city and then pick your point of interest. You can either enter the name of the location or select it from a list of categories. The thing is, different types of historic sites fall into different categories. Battlefields and state parks tend to fall under “Parks and Recreation,” whereas historic house parks are usually under “Museums.” There’s also a category for “Tourist Attractions,” but it seems to consist mostly of amusement parks and stuff like that.
I also haven’t figured out a way to enter a point of interest without first selecting a city, another nearby point, a route, or a map region. You need to give the device a ballpark range before it will bring up a specific destination. This can be irritating. Everybody knows that you have to head to Gettysburg to see Gettysburg National Military Park. But what if you get an urge to visit Moore’s Creek Bridge or Lincoln’s Boyhood Home? If you can’t name a nearby town, you might have to do a little online digging first to see what’s in the vicinity. Of course, since you’re probably going to look into a place you’re planning to visit, this isn’t a serious drawback.
These are definitely handy gizmos to have if you’re a dedicated history tourist. Every battlefield stomper should have one, especially if you want to make a lot of first-time trips. There’s your TomTom review for the discerning heritage tourist. Next time I’ll review the site we visited on our field test, a house on a rocky hilltop with an interesting story to tell.
(Lewis and Clark portraits via Wikimedia Commons)