Woe to the person who sits in the passenger seat, because the role of navigator will be thrust upon them whether they have the aptitude or not. I am known for my tendency to take impromptu “tours” wherever I go. I find going into big box stores and malls disorienting, especially true off those stores whose aisles are floor to ceiling. With no horizon to aim for, I wander aimlessly for hours. I typically forget I need to turn right instead of left. The advent of GPS has been a lifesaver for me, especially when I go to unfamiliar places. I’m not totally hopeless, I get where I’m gong without adult supervision eventually, but I’ve taken some interesting detours in getting from point A to B. Regardless of the fact that this flaw of mine is well known, for better or worse I am now the navigator for a car guy who has spent most of his life driving all over the country. Ben has an interstate map in his head and is great at figuring out the big route. My job starts when we have to negotiate the short turns to a destination, which is my Achilles heel.
After about eight years of travel together in vehicles of various shapes and sizes, I have amassed an arsenal of tools to overcome my lack of a sense of direction. With the advent of RV travels, I’ve added to the list. Must haves are: A road atlas. A trucker road atlas. A Next Exit book. Google Maps and Waze apps. A RV-specific GPS. If you’re going to travel, you’ve got to remember one word when it comes to tools for getting there; diversify.
Paper maps are indispensable. They never run out of battery life and are based on existing known roads. A good road atlas coves all 50 states and Canada. They are great for plotting out a general route. A trucker atlas is slightly different and very useful for people who drive RVs. They have all the same stuff a regular atlas has, but routes on the map are flagged for weight limits and height clearances. This is very helpful because if you’re driving a 12′ high vehicle and you encounter a bridge with 11′ 6″ clearance, you have a problem that can only be solved with scary maneuvers and a lot of cursing on the part of you and your fellow motorists who are being detained. The pragmatically titled Next Exit atlas describes amenities, food and fuel options at each exit. The drawback to all of them is they are printed. You have to buy new maps every year, and hope the updated version is–updated. Depend on paper maps alone, and you can be driving along singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” or some other travel ditty, only to find out that the road you’re on has been not just closed, but removed. That exact thing happened to us in Maine. We were riding on this pretty but remote state route with a group of street rods when we rounded the corner to find one of those giant machines had chewed away miles of the pavement. There is nothing so painful as to watch guys drive their precious classic cars over miles of stony, muddy roadbed.
Apps and GPS devices have their pros and cons. Phone apps are great for real-time traffic information and for finding local attractions but they don’t recognize that you are in a big-ass vehicle, so they want you to do silly things like take your 12′ vehicle under 11′ 6″ bridges. I like Google Maps for calculating different routes and destnaton times, and Waze is great for navigating in-town. The biggest failing of any app is that if you travel in remote areas, you are at the mercy of spotty to nonexistent wireless service. Dedicated GPS devices depend on satellites, so they will typically function in remote areas, though they make it clear to you they don’t like to do so. We own a Garmin RV-specific GPS device. When we bought it we were told it was smart enough to keep us off routes that are not appropriate, like the bridge situation I mentioned above. It will also warn you about road closures and construction *if it knows about it,* which it won’t if you’re in a remote area. What they did not tell us was that the Gramin has a temperament similar to HAL the computer in 2001 a Space Oddysey. I don’t think our Garmin is trying to kill us and commandeer the RV, but it is very stubborn, and I suspect it gaslights us from time to time. It has its routes programmed in its tiny brain, and if you are audacious enough to go some other route, it nags you to turn around at every exit for about 100 miles until it finally heaves a giant sigh and calculates your route for you. Then it sulks and pouts the rest of the way. Regardless of the device or program, at some point you know they are messing with you. We were in Montgomery Alabama heading for our favorite bed and breakfast–Wal Mart. Our supposedly RV-friendly Garmin took us on a narrow twisty road through an unlit industrial park to get there. Daylight revealed that we could have continued on the nice 4-lane highway for a half mile and turned into the Wal-Mart lot. It was probably still grumpy at us for ignoring its preferred route.
About an hour out from our destination, I pop open the atlas, check the Garmin and cross-check it with Waze and Google maps. In the past I have been led astray by each one in some way, so I have learned to verify before I trust. I’ve taken to looking at the satellite view in Google Maps to check the road to see how many lanes there are, what the entrances and exits look like, and if there is enough space for us to park. I have a pull out desktop, and with all my stuff laid out, I feel a little like a navigator from a WWII movie, or like Mr. Sulu plotting a course to sling us around Wal Mart and use the warp momentum to enter a wormhole that will get us to Florida in record time. Like all good helmsmen though, I leave the docking up to the captain. I must be doing OK, as I have yet to be demoted.