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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Human Error or Garmin Map Error - Again!

GPS accuracy is getting more and more precise apparently. The open street map website has an article about it <here> and so does the US Air Force government site dedicated to GPS <here>. So, I don't really know which satellite to take to task for leading me down to a dead end road after 32 miles of twists and turns and the same number of miles away from my objective! In fact however, the problem could have totally been between my brain and the device - an acronym computer users have often referred to as PEBCAK (Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard).

I was in Silicon Valley for a week and again was able to use a Garmin navigation device in my rented car to help me get around. The Garmin proved very useful our first visit to San Francisco, though not entirely without a few hiccups.  Turns out that Garmin is also making a fitness device called the vivoactive which is also GPS equipped, but this article is focusing on cars (and is demonstrably non-ehealth). Extreme Tech has an interesting article on how getting lost these days in a car is a lost art! However, I think getting lost while driving is an art, as long as it is intentional, and you don't need all the tech to do it. I still don't have a smart phone (or roaming charges) for example, to help get me out of lost.

One of the beauties of driving in the San Francisco bay area is going down Highway 1 towards Big Sur. This is a breathtaking trip for landlocked Ontarians like myself and I have done this before on a previous one week stay. I have been down that 17 mile scenic highway that goes through the famous Pebble Beach golf course. I had seen the magnificent vistas of rock, beach, ocean and mountains (and the palaces and homes of the plutocratic rich).

It was towards Big Sur again when I made an unfortunate decision to turn left onto Carmel Valley Road just outside of Monterey, instead of right towards the 17 Mile Road and Highway 1, where all the other cars were lined up to go. The voice of the Garmin GPS was saying turn left onto Carmel Valley Road,(G-16) while my gut instinct was saying that was the wrong way to go.

Now, the Carmel Road name seemed strangely familiar to me. Every time before a road trip I will consult my iPad Google maps the night or morning before and try to memorize routes. It just so happened that we were in a Starbucks that has WiFi just 5 minutes before this turn but I did not spend that much time consulting directions - it was a no brainer just to take Highway 1. Still, this time, I was going to give the Garmin GPS the benefit of the doubt. I have ignored it before while successfully trusting my own sense of direction, but this time it appeared that it might be right, or at least intriguingly possible, even though all the other cars clearly were not heading in that direction.

About 5 months before our trip I was studying Google maps about this area of California. I was looking in anticipation to our up and coming trip. I was trying to find the location of the Tassajara Zen Centre, that had a remote meditation retreat centre somewhere. I had long been a fan of the well known Tassajara Cookbook.  I found out that it was in such a remote area in the mountains south of Monterey, that the final stages could not even be reached by car. I had read that some people with 4 by 4 or off road vehicles could get close to it though. This was not a trip I imagined my wife would ever be in favour of making. If I had recalled at all, I would have remembered that the Tassajara Zen Centre, was accessed first along the Carmel Valley Road. That is perhaps why the name seemed familiar but it did not come into my consciousness until I noticed the road sign (probably the only one on the G16 route for all it's 30 miles length), that said Tassajara Rd!

The 6 miles or so road to the village of Carmel is just fine and there are many signs of civilization in the form of California haciendas, ranches, camps, and a few horse stables, stores, whatnot. There was even a collection of vintage cars coming at us from an Exhibition near the Carmel village.  Because of the drought this summer, everything is bone dry. All the mountains are brown. When we visited during the winter month of December it rained all the time in San Francisco, the mountains are green and it gets pitch black by 5:00pm. It really looks like dry gultch desert Western country out here now. Just outside the village though, the road immediately is less paved and maintained, and narrower, and then it starts to twist and turn, delivering at the same time a foreboding sense of starting a journey into remote uncharted regions of the Garmin map. I have been on twisting and turning roads before but after about 7 miles I pull over to consult the GPS. I am not going to be able to take much more of this, nor could the nerves of my wife.

I zoom out of the small GPS location on the Garmin screen for a bigger picture. It looks like another 30 miles of this kind of road and I am not too sure where it ends. I am hoping a beautiful vista of Big Sur and waves breaking on the coast. Little did I know that my subconscious yearning to explore the terrain near Tassajara was leading me on. After about 10 miles of twists and turns, the painted line in the middle of the road long ago disappearing, absolutely no cars seen in both directions, we do come to a vista, but it is of a remote and vast expanse of browned-out grassy dry mountains fading away off in the distance, with just the hint of the road ahead, turning and twisting. Gut wrenching decision to just continue on, hoping against hope that GPS is not wrong again. It has been wrong before. Never trust that accursed device!

In another frame of mind I would not mind this trip. I would enjoy the blue sky, the barrenness, the expanding mountainous views, and the solitude. But I am clutching onto the steering wheel, and going cautiously around blind turns.  The same morning driving in from San Mateo we took the Skyline Boulevard down to La Honda, a pretty drive along the mountain edge looking out over Silicon Valley, with giant cedar trees, no human habitations, and winding roads. Unfortunately it also had hundreds of cyclists hogging the lane, and often a peloton of Porches gunning trough gear changes on the twisting road - some sort of Silicon Vally millionaires Sunday morning fun in our Porches club - and we saw more than several peletons of them. I had been in a head on car accident as a kid on the small dirt roads in Northern Ontario, a truck coming over the hill in the centre of the road blind to us oncoming. I know we are nowhere near human habitation now, and we don't have a smartphone. We do have enough gas. My wife, a natural worrier, is not making this stress any easier. Then I saw the road sign indicting Tassajara Rd leading off to the right. It was the first branching road we came across after 15 miles, and I knew that I had unconsciously deceived myself for good. Biggest fool on planet Earth - me - bigger than the mountains on Pluto (way off from the Earth). And about to be greater.

Thankfully there were no cliff edge look overs into sheer drops into bottomless ravines, no nothing quite Nepal-like like that. We seemed to be blazing through a lower elevation in the mountains, that were tending to get higher as we progressed. It wasn't until we heard the Garmin navigator suddenly speak after an hour of radio silence -  "Turn right on Arroyo Seco" - that the mountainous terrain began to soar over our heads - huge great peaks up to over 2000 meters - I was not really sure how high as I was kind of afraid to look up and take my eyes off the road. We really felt like we had broken through into a different terrain altogether, but there was no ocean there. I am still trying to locate these mountains on Google Earth but I believe it is in the Santa Lucia range. After 32 miles of twists and turns Arroyo Seco is a freshly paved road with a painted line down the middle and we are heading off to very soon seeing the beautiful mountains and ocean of Big Sur, or so we hope against hope.

We had gone only a few miles down Arroyo Seco (which means dry creek or something), when we came to what appeared to be a dead end. It was not possible! We had arrived at a park gate house. I just googled it now and it is the Arroyo Seco Campground in the Ventana wilderness and the Los Padres National Forest. Four park ranger people appeared to be crammed into the little gate house. I look ahead and see that our freshly paved road does a complete tight circle around the gate house. GPS error again! The impossible is possible. I asked the park rangers if the road continues on to Highway 1. Apparently it used to, up until 1995, but all that is left now is only fit for horses, mules or hikers.  I guess this isn't the way to Big Sur then, and I hear them chuckling inside. "You wouldn't be the first to make a GPS mistake and end up here". Guess not. The problem now, is how to get back? Don't tell me we have to take the same road back!

Yes, in fact, taking the same road back was the best option. It was coming on to 6:00pm. It would soon be getting dark. Our day trip to Big Sur was over. We would never get there that day before almost sunset. The two other options were going back the newly paved road to Greenfield then up Highway 101 to Soledad and eventually San Jose and San Francisco. I didn't think to ask them to actually see a paper map but I can no longer think my Garmin map was accurately reflecting that or any route. I turn off and cram the Garmin into the console. Later when I looked at Google Earth that wasn't so bad an option. The other option presented by the Park ranger made no sense at all - something about crossing through a protected military area and asking for a permit, but on inspecting the map later, it was more of a straight line to Big Sur, but through God knows what in terms of terrain. So, shame face and full of exasperation, we go back down the same road again.

How could that Garmin map be 20 years out of date? Why were there no signs on the G16 to indicate that if you are looking for the way to Big Sur on your Garmin device you are going in the wrong direction?

At this point, I thought my wife was probably going to kill me with her stress level but she bore this fate bravely and cooly. This was no time to panic. We had already gone down that road before and we knew the twists and turns. All we had to do was hang on for another hour and we would survive. On the mercifully uneventful way back we stopped to take a picture of the Tassajara Rd sign, just to prove we had been there. We took the picture with our digital camera which I don't believe embeds GPS coordinates. If I we had used our smartphone it would embed GPS and I have found locations from photos by looking up the their GPS information before. All you have to do is right click on a photo and read the properties for the GPS information. Found out a photo I didn't recognize sent by a friend was at Napoleon's Tomb in Paris that way.

Just for those in the future who may want to try this drive, it is much easier coming in or going out through Greenfield, in my opinion. And for those who like motorcylces, the route has been named one of the top 5 motorcylce routes in Central California.  In retrospect, motorcycle or not, it was a privilege to get screwed by the Garmin GPS, in order to experience the bone dry remoteness of the mountains of Central California. No wonder buddhist zen practitioners stay out there seeking enlightenment. Even with all the twists and turns, there ain't no one coming around the corner - it is all emptiness.