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Remember Driving Before GPS?

Updated on October 9, 2017

Lost in the family

I come from a long line of navigational challenged drivers.

There is a great story about the time that my mother and grandmother missed the turn off from the highway heading back to the Chicago suburbs and somehow managed to keep going way North until they began to see the signs for I 94 towards Wisconsin. In a time before cell phones, they kept going until they agreed upon an exit, and turned around at a gas station after the attendant had a good laugh at their expense. Back in my grandma's Mustang, they again headed South, paying more tolls than any normal person should until they reached the Southside in one piece.

I was a little more fortunate as I learned to drive; my starter vehicle had been a huge wood paneled station wagon that I have the impressive story of jumping a parking block when backing up and clipping the corner of a golf course pro shop with no damage at all done to the back bumper.

The first of my group to get a drivers license, we didn't initially venture far from the neighborhood. As the town unfolded and I learned where things were in relation to each other, my world started growing bigger.

Without knowing the name of streets and towns, my navigation was to be at the expectation level of someone with family members that accidentally drove to Wisconsin because they missed a turn.

By the time I had my own car, a 1996 Chevy Cavalier in Aqua Blue that I managed to drive for about thirty thousand miles before someone took the front end off the car turning in front of me, I had a pretty good lay of the land for at least three town over with the help of passengers.

Since most of the passengers were just getting their license or didn't drive yet, they weren't much help in the how to get anywhere process either and we identified landmarks such as "It's near the good Dennys", or "The blue house that looks weird is on the right hand side of the street."

With many illegal U turns, we managed to get where we were going.

Pictured on the day I bought it, I wasn't too concerned with GPS, as it had been a feature on the last three phones I owned
Pictured on the day I bought it, I wasn't too concerned with GPS, as it had been a feature on the last three phones I owned | Source

Lost girl

Most of my passengers hadn't learned to drive yet, so they didn't know the name of streets so directions included shouts of "Turn on the street with the really big tree!" or "It's by the weird looking blue house." It's a wonder I'm still not driving in circles!

Your quest if you choose to accept it

By college, thanks to the relationship I had with the local music scene, was filled with road trips. My friends and I had volunteered to do street team events for a local venue and every weekend we seemed to be on the road for somewhere. Unpaid tee shirt booth employees, or flyer hander-outers, most of the mileage on the 2000 Chevy Camaro that had become my new chariot was from those magical road trips.

If struggling musicianship was the closest thing to being homeless, ranked right along with it was the road crew sleeping at least six or seven people to a two bed hotel room, feeding ourselves from the vending machines to keep most of the money we had for gas.

Like ourselves, the bands also had grown up in a driving world of "Go straight until you see the Shell station, then turn left when you see the bank," and was often asking us if we knew the directions to the next venue.

While navigation was still in its early infancy; we had given up the road maps stashed in car glove boxes for a new website MapQuest, where you could type in the coordinates of that elusive thing we were trying to find.

The world had gotten a little larger, streets now had names, and we felt a little more confident states away from home.

What we learned early on though was that the routes generated often made no sense, taking you blocks out of the way only to ask you make a U Turn so that it could route you past a sponsored business advertising on their website. Directions like "Stay in the left lane for four miles and turn right" were often up to interpretation.

I recall a famous road trip where the two bands that had performed, myself, and about three other cars had pulled to the side of the Dan Ryan staring at our own versions of the MapQuest directions arguing into the night on where exactly it was trying to lead us. The caravan of weary travelers snaked on and off the exit ramp for at least three cycles until everyone had pulled over again.

It was nearing one in the morning, and there was no sign of the hotel we were looking for. We sat on the hoods on our collective vehicles chain smoking and swearing at each other until finally a state policeman had arrived and allowed our sad parade to actually follow the cruiser up the exit ramp and deposit us at the side of the road near a Walmart where we abandoned any attempt at finding a hotel and all slept in the cars.

There had to be a better way.

'Round and round

Our sad parade, exhausted after the attempt to find the hotel, chose to spend the night in the cars. There had to be another way

GPS...the wave of the future

"Paper maps were like so early '90's man!"

Technology had ushered in the newest must have gadget, an ex boyfriend that had managed a Radio Shack, had told me one night after his shift. There was this new product that had come out that gave computerized maps while you are driving.

It was clear this was the sales pitch from the manger meeting as he rambled on something about global positioning and satellites. I was lucky that he had gotten me one of the gadget for Christmas, but he worked his snake oil salesman charm and manged to sell most of his inventory to family and friends over the holiday season.

The GPS was pretty simple to use, granted if your device actually calibrated and was able to connect to the satellite. Early model would require that you drove a few block until it would load in the map of where you were, then you had to pull over and input your destination. Depending on how often your map pack had been updated, newer developments and cities that were farther away may not be showing up.

Still in the college years, when my friends and I went on our weekend adventures now- somewhat confident in the all knowing powers of the triangle icon following a blue line across the device screen; we sort of knew where we were going. Someone should have told us that the early models often stopped working when it was heavily raining, too windy, or sometimes told you to turn into the lake.

The biggest moment in GPS failure I had experienced in hand held unit was after a night in the city where for whatever reason it wouldn't load in the map and I crept slowly through the streets of Wicker Park, relying on memory that I could figure out how to get back to the I 55 ramp for North Avenue.


Weather setback

The earliest models were flawed as severe weather could impact the devices ability to contact the satellite and load in the maps.


Phones, OnStar and other devices

When I think back to my first car, it amazes me how far I have come from winding a tank-wide station wagon down suburb streets trying to turn at the blue house. Compared to that first car I had taken, and failed my first attempt at the drivers ed test in, I was driving a computer.

I hadn't opted for OnStar or a built in GPS unit in my 2015 Corolla, both fine technology that helped my location challenged self find which side of the street the movie theater was on for the last decade. In my pocket was essentially a computer; this tiny phone that was no longer termed a phone but a "device", after the words "Smart Phone" had gotten a little too passe for the iPhone generation.

Standard was a program that could tell me how to get the places I was bound to drive past twice and circle the block trying to turn into. The phone GPS could tell me where I parked my car when I was bound to lose it in the parking lot of the grocery store since seemingly the only color of the 2015 Corolla that everyone bought had to be the same Barcelona Red of my own ride rendering it impossible to spot with the naked eye.

I was a spoiled old dog using millennials toys. What would kids these days think of a time that cars hadn't come with their own WiFi?

Would kids these days understand the emotional breakdown that came from having to pull to the side of the road in tears when you somehow kept passing the turn off in the dark? Would they believe there wasn't a time you couldn't ask Siri, or Alexa, or Bixby, or whoever your phone assistants name is to tell you have to find a clothing store?

It is a wonder that any of us that learned to drive back in these terrible times kept doing it, The aggravation that came from trying to find anything before GPS almost wasn't worth the freedom of hoping into the car.

My husband still makes fun of me when I manage to turn the wrong way on the streets near our home as my old brain can't wrap itself around if we are coming from the East then the shopping center is on the left and not the right. Like my mother and grandmother who memorized the location of everything in their daily lives by the business that was located on each street, if a Shell station became Citgo they would sail on by without a thought.

I'm insufferable as I memorize one way to get to work, lest there never be a detour or traffic accident.

To this day I am still guilty of pulling over and asking Siri how to get somewhere within blocks of my house. Perhaps one day the new device technology will include the GPS brain implant.

Are you horrible at directions and relying on GPS too much

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    • WheelScene profile image

      WheelScene 5 months ago from U.S.A.

      Sometimes I know exactly where I am going, and then I doubt myself and turn on the GPS then I realize I never needed it!!!

      Sometimes it is just the feeling of knowing you're right on track more so then needing the directions.

      Happy hubbing!