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My GPS Story

Learning how to travel in an RV was a hard lesson in some respects. Maybe it had something to do with how I was taught to travel by my parents.

My Father's Style

The trips of my youth were best described as driven. My parents would load my brother and I into the car, and head down the road with such determination that even bathroom breaks were avoided at all costs. This is where my father made very clear the difference between pecan (pee-con: the tree nut) and pee-can (the automotive substitute for a bathroom break). He had a very good sense of direction and never appeared to get lost. Maps were only used before the trip started.

I followed this example when I was much older and taking vacations of my own. It didn't matter if it was a road trip by car, a plane trip with a rented car, or my early RV trips - maps were mainly consulted before the trip and maybe as a last resort if I got lost on the trip.

This continued through all my travels until a single missed turn sent our RV into downtown San Francisco. Steep hills, narrow streets, tight turns and heavy traffic all added to the intense feeling of the situation. At that time our only paper map of the city had such tiny printing for the surface street names that it took a very long time to find where we were and then find our way out. It was such an intense experience that we actually breathed a big sigh of relief to finally get on the Golden Gate bridge. Casey didn't appear to be stressed at all while we were navigating our way through San Francisco, so I asked him later why weren't you scared? His response was I was, but you were already so scared I didn't want to add to make things any worse. What a guy!

This was when we started looking for something more than paper maps.

My First GPS

My first experience with GPS (global positioning system) was bundled with a program called DeLorme Street Atlas USA. It came with a big yellow GPS satellite receiver box that connected to the USB plug on my laptop computer so the software could know in real time where we were in the world. Now I could watch the map move in real time and instantly follow our location. If (when) we made a wrong turn, I could immediately see all the ways to get around the block so our detours were much less stressful and sometimes turned into surprise adventures. I was also able to better plan the trips before I left the house and to make changes along the way since we frequently decide to go somewhere other than originally planned. We now view every intersection as a choice - a chance to start a new adventure.

Unfortunately that big yellow GPS receiver box turned out to be sensitive to heat and that was a bad combination for a device that needed to be in the front window in full sunlight while we were driving. Something inside must have melted after a particularly hot summer drive through Texas in the middle of a long trip so we were in a hurry to find a replacement. The local computer store only had Microsoft Streets and Trips bundled with a different very tiny GPS receiver, so we not only had a new receiver, but a whole new kind of software to learn.

Learning New Software

Microsoft Streets and Trips is very different compared to DeLorme Street Atlas USA. First off the maps look very pretty - a lot more like a paper map. Then the whole user interface is different and by comparison a little less busy. All this is OK if it still does what I need. But the ugly stuff is not far below that pretty face.

I do all of the routing and navigation for our trips while Casey does all the driving. My first route with Streets and Trips was very confusing. It tried to take me about 400 miles out of our way. It was quite obvious when looking at the paper map that there was a much more direct route. And there was no easy way to make the software mark the route I wanted. This was my first clue that the old Microsoft slogan Where do you want to go today?SM may be their way of asking me for directions. Were they lost? We could have been had we followed their directions rather than ignoring the surprise side trip.

After that I took their routing advice as something I must always double check and tweak. Speaking of tweaking a route to go the way I want - I have a serious issue with editing routes.

All of the map software I have ever seen only gives two route choices; shortest and fastest. Neither of these really fits the way we like to travel. We like to avoid interstates most of the time to see the country and experience the local flavor which includes roadside attractions, good food and good sights. There is no clear fastest/shortest choice that fits. This is one reason why I spend so much time creating and tweaking my routes that freely mix all kinds of roads even if they are not the shortest nor fastest. Street Atlas at least gives me a way to mark avoid on certain types of roads like toll roads and dirt roads.

My Killer Feature

This brought me to my killer feature; via. In Street Atlas USA there is an easy way to tell the route how I want to go from one place to another through a third point on the map by setting waymarks. This is exactly like telling a cab driver to go a specific way to get to your destination. It is not a stop, you don't need to get out, you don't need to pay your fare and start a new fare, you don't even need to take notice that the waymark has passed. This is something DeLorme Street Atlas USA clearly gets and Microsoft Streets and Trips does not.

At this point I stopped trying to learn the Microsoft software and searched out ways to get the new GPS receiver working with the software I liked.

Turns and Road Names

Over the next few road trips I would sometimes bring up Microsoft Streets and Trips, give it the same route DeLorme Street Atlas had already found for us and followed it just to see the difference. This brought up another interesting quirk. Whenever street names change on the map, even if the street does not turn, Microsoft Streets and Trips warns about an upcoming turn. Can't it see the road is perfectly straight and there are no exits or side streets? This seems to be much worse in the mid-west where many sections of roads and highways are often dedicated to a war hero, politician or famous personality. At first it can be humorous, then it gets really annoying to have all of these false turns getting in the way of telling how far it is to the real next turn.

New Hardware

The GPS receiver that came with the Microsoft Streets and Trips started to have connection problems partly due to a rather cumbersome dongle between the USB cable and the tiny receiver. So I opted to get a new DeLorme Street Atlas USA bundle including their new, much less heat sensitive, GPS receiver and new software. I was again able to create and tinker with routes both before and during our trips.

As is the case with all computer hardware, eventually things fail. This time it was my laptop computer. It was well over five years old with enough miles to most of the lower 48 states. The old style LCD screen was getting a little too dim to see in the daytime and almost everything from the USB ports to the CD drive were failing. It was time to find something new. This time I opted for a desktop computer instead of a laptop because I was not planning on any extended traveling for a few years while I focused on work.

After much evaluation and comparison between all of the choices, I went with an Apple iMac that came with a super bright LED screen as large as my TV. This was the first time in almost 30 years of using computers that I was so excited about something so common as a computer. Yes, the Mac operating system is different for this long time Windows user, but it was different like a breath of fresh air. Frustrating things that I had accepted as a normal part of using a computer were suddenly no problem.

Then I opened the Apple iPhoto program that was included and instantly my many thousands of digital photos from all of our trips turned into useful events that could each become their own very slick slide show with the click of a single button on a remote from across the room. And if that was not enough, I was blown away when the faces feature in iPhoto found my baby photos and correctly asked is this Cathy? right before my jaw hit the ground in astonishment. Microsoft is not even in the same league.

The few Windows-only programs I was still using moved into a VirtualBox on my iMac so nothing was lost. I installed Windows 2000 in the VirtualBox which is the last version of Windows that does not need external activation and does not need to call home to remain activated. Fortunately my most recent version of DeLorme Street Atlas runs on Windows 2000 so I could still make all of my routes, but since things inside a VirtualBox don't have direct access to physical hardware this was a problem for using the GPS receiver. That is until VirtualBox was updated to have better USB compatibility. Now it all works nicely right on my iMac using the old GPS receiver that has somewhat recovered from it's heat stroke. The iMac desktop is way too big to bring on trips so I looked for something at the other extreme of the size spectrum - the Macbook Air with a VirtualBox of my Windows 2000 that moves from my desktop to the laptop when I travel. This works great as long as I don't upgrade my maps to a new version because the new DeLorme Street Atlas requires a minimum of Windows XP. I do not understand why no one has written a GPS system for the Mac, but this works for me until they do.

We do have a workaround for the problem of old map data. My iPhone has a nice GPS and when I'm in the cell phone service area I can see Google maps including satellite views which are extra helpful for scouting out parking lots before we get there with the RV. To my surprise it was not the lack of AT&T coverage that caused me the most headache, but the small screen size. Reading street names on a tiny screen while driving around looking for a destination is not my idea of fun. I would much rather use a paper map. This makes me think those hand held GPS units with tiny screens would not work well for me either. It will, however, come in handy when we enter an area where the old map on the computer does not show roads that are obviously really there. I can just pull out the iPhone and see where we are until we get back into the older part of town.

My Personal GPS Thoughts

I'm not fond of the first person GPS where it speaks to you about when and where to turn. It is a novel feature in rental cars until the first glitch. It is not that helpful when it insists that I turn down a rail-road track instead of the real turn half a block down the road.

I really enjoy playing with the map software, creating routes, comparing different routes, and looking for roadside attractions (including good food) near our routes. When I'm not traveling this is how I get into the open road frame of mind. When I'm traveling this is my way to get us from point A to point B without having to dig out the big paper atlas or missing the important things along the way. We like to avoid interstates when possible, but this is not a hard rule when the Interstate is clearly the easiest way to get there. This human contradiction is a major source of frustration for some routing software.

I'm very glad to have all of these navigation tools, both before and during a trip. Casey does all of the driving and counts on me to keep him from getting into a place we cannot turn around easily. Our small RV is only 21 feet long, but it's wider than a car and even that much extra length makes it a little more difficult to turn around and to go down narrow streets. I've learned not to ask him to take me to an out of the way waterfall I heard about, way up a mountain on a twisty turny narrow road. At least I don't ask until I've had a chance to look at the road with the Google satellite view. We have traveled over 100,000 miles in our RV and have loved every minute. Even our getting lost in downtown San Francisco is counted as a fun experience when talking about it afterward. It makes a great story.


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