Leave the GPS behind: Why it’s important to take risks when we travel

Wendy Redal August 20, 2010 3

StPaul-road-map1-300x244I just returned from a delightful family reunion in suburban Minneapolis – not an event or a setting one would associate with ‘adventure travel.’ But my husband and I found ourselves the adventurous anomaly among his Scandinavian extended family when we set out one afternoon, with merely a map, to find the Irish Festival in nearby Saint Paul.

Most of the out-of-town relatives relied exclusively on their GPS devices to find their way from the airport to the outlying motel, from the motel to the park, from the park to a cousin’s home and back again. Just plug in the address, trust the reassuring female voice, and voila, stress-free travel to your destination.

I would admit that GPS might not be a bad thing to have along on a trip where the primary intention is to navigate unfamiliar roads efficiently in order to reach particular places. But with much of travel, the biggest rewards come through serendipitous discovery and negotiating the unexpected.

The driver reliant on GPS is not going to take an appealing detour, or likely even notice distinctive scenes passing by, because the focus tends to be on anticipating the next computerized instruction. GPS may remove worry, but it also undermines the confidence that comes with self-reliance, even the mere act of relying on oneself to navigate with a map.

Several years ago when I was visiting a friend in Vermont, we discussed going to Montreal for a day with our three young sons. She was nervous at the prospect because her GPS (a novelty in cars then) did not function in Canada. The plan seemed doubly daunting because she did not read French. I convinced her we could get by with a map and my elementary knowledge of the language, and we had a terrific time. But I began to wonder then, what will the repercussions be for a new generation of ‘independent’ travelers who have never known any way to get around other than with the benevolent authority of a GPS system? What if the GPS fails? Will they know which direction to head, or even that the sun can offer a cue, if they get lost?Arret-sign-300x191

What I fear we are seeing more of is a pervasive “GPS attitude” in our travel culture, which doesn’t necessarily require having such a device – it kicks in when a traveler chooses the interstate over an unknown two-lane road, a chain hotel over a unique local lodging, Starbucks over a neighborhood café, a theme-park resort over a wilderness encounter. It’s opting for the safe bet, rather than the risk of novelty and self-sufficiency. I’d suggest that these latter two qualities are the hallmarks of adventure travel, which in my book is the most meaningful mindset through which to encounter other places and cultures, even subcultures in the American Midwest.

“Why bother to go elsewhere if you expect to have things exactly the same?”, to paraphrase a popular rhetorical adage about travel. Half the joy of travel is taking risks: Finding a thrill in the unfamiliar, whether settings, tastes, sensation or conversation. Confronting a challenge and negotiating it successfully, whether that’s circumnavigating a high Arctic icefield, dealing with a bus breakdown in a rural area in a Third World country, or something as simple as finding one’s way to Saint Paul from Plymouth, tracking down a parking space and following the sound of a fiddle reel to the fairgrounds at the river’s edge.

My family and me in the WInd River Range of Wyoming

My family and me in the WInd River Range of Wyoming

When my family went backpacking recently in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, friends worried about our safety: Might we encounter bears? What if we got injured, 10 tough miles in from a remote trailhead? What about a lightning strike above treeline? Or, in my case, what if I lagged back, missed a cairn marking the rocky route and got lost in a boulder field, which I did? I retraced my steps and found the way. We didn’t meet a bear, but we had a can of pepper spray, if we had. My son twisted his ankle on the way out but managed to make it with liberal infusions of ibuprofen. We watched the skies carefully and made sure we weren’t on a ridge during a thunderstorm.

In travel, as in life, we must assess risk. But if we tried to avoid it entirely, we’d never leave our homes. Travel is about leaving home, and returning to find it – and ourselves — different. Travel offers perspective. Delight in discovery. Re-evaluation of the familiar. Appreciation for alternatives. An expanded sense of one’s personal capacities. Travel can be one of the most effective vehicles for personal growth, if we allow it to. It starts with trust, in ourselves, in others and in the value of adventure.

Yours in the explorer’s quest,



  1. John Worrall August 21, 2010 at 7:22 am - Reply

    It’s about taking risks, but also using our brains! I liken the GPS to the computers auto mechanics now use to diagnose problems. Instead of relying on good old fashion skill and experience, they let a machine do their thinking for them. Much of the time they miss the obvious, just like tech-happy travelers miss the world around them.

  2. Tom Yulsman August 20, 2010 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    I received a GPS unit as a gift once. I don’t use it any more. I feel totally comfortable navigating the back country with a topo map, my sense of direction, and a compass when I need one (which I almost never do). I bet GPS units are dulling people’s natural sense of direction. As for the car, they might be helpful on a road trip from point A to point B when you absolutely positively must get to point B by a specific time. Other than that, the only use I have for a GPS is on my wrist — a runner’s watch that keeps track of how many miles I’ve run and how fast I’ve run them. Now THAT’s a gizmo I love!

  3. Ann August 20, 2010 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    I like to have the GPS along, but for exactly the opposite reason. I can follow my inclinations, detour, explore and always be assured of knowing at least my general location, in case my usual “hey, I think I came this way, kind of, let’s drive for a while and see” doesn’t work. Then again, I don’t leave it on or drive by its spoken directions unless I’m running errands around town, on a schedule and to specific unfamiliar locations. On road trips, it serves as an electronic map and backup only.

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