By In Stuff

GPS And a Sportswriter’s Life

This may sound like bragging, but I’m pretty sure that I do not have the worst sense of direction in United States. I say this because I have a friend who was driving one day and missed Philadelphia. The city. I can’t say for sure that I would notice the fifth largest city in America when driving by, but I’m fairly confident I would, and so I would say that at-best, the very best, I have the second-worst sense of direction in the Untied States.*

*My wife, meanwhile, has a very good sense of direction, which you would think makes us the perfect geographical couple. Unfortunately, Margo has another title: She is the most descriptive direction giver in the entire world. A typical Margo set of directions might go like so: “You’ll want to stay straight on that road, and you’ll go by the Dairy Queen and gas station, I’m not sure which one it is, I’m thinking it’s like a Sunoco, maybe, or an Exxon, but whatever, just keep going by that, and you’ll go by where the Bob Evans used to be, they closed it like a year ago, I thought they had really slow service, but my husband liked their chicken salad plate, which I have to admit was pretty good, it had lots of fruit on it, but I couldn’t stand going there because of the service. You’ll keep going, you know, past the bank, which actually used to be our old bank, but then we saw that they were hitting us with these charges, you know, and I called them up to tell them about it, and they were kind of rude, you know, so that was it, I cannot believe they had that kind of customer service, and anyway it didn’t make any sense because once they closed the Bob Evans, there really wasn’t much reason to go into that shopping center, especially because that gas station, I think, always charges like seven cents more per gallon than that gas station near our house and …”

At this point the person is exactly two blocks away from where he or she started.

Having, potentially, the second-worst sense of direction in the United States, I have come to rely entirely on the GPS system in whatever car I happen to be driving. I do mean entirely. I’ve written before that if my GPS sent me to Dallas via Yakutsk, I would pack my winter coat.* If my GPS told me to stop the car, get out, and start singing songs from “Oklahoma,” you would hear “The corn was as high as an elephant’s eye!”

*This GPS Dependence drives my wife mad because she thinks that she knows better than the computer, and she’s probably right. Unfortunately for her, the computer says “Take next right,” while she says, “Go by the Lowe’s, you know, where we got that first grill, remember, the one that has the missing starter part, and you had to use that Q-Tip to try and clean it out and then we realized that they had sold us an empty gas canister and …”

One of the many side-effects of being that reliant on a GPS is that I’ve sort of become cocky about long trips. I don’t do research like I once did. Oh, sure, I used to pull out maps — as conflicting as it sounds, I’m actually pretty good at reading maps — and I would plot out routes and I would plan out stops and everything like that. I would STILL get lost, but it wasn’t for lack of preparation. But now, I just get in the car, punch in the destination, and robotically follow directions. This is exactly what I did on Monday, when I planned to drive from Kansas City to Lincoln, Nebraska.

* * *

I’ve made the Kansas City to Lincoln drive a few times before, and I always liked it. I like driving. I especially like mindless driving. The drive to Lincoln is generally a two-turn trip. You take I-29 North into Iowa. Then you go west on Nebraska Highway 2. And that’s just about it. Once you get closer to Lincoln there are a few more turns, but they’re well marked and, anyway, I had my GPS. I was going up to Lincoln to spend some time with Nebraska’s legendary coach Tom Osborne, we were going to talk about Joe Paterno, and I was excited about things. I left about two hours early in case of problems. I punched in the address of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln (600 Stadium Drive) and I was off.

Everything went smoothly. Traffic was light heading into Iowa, as you might expect, it being Iowa. There was some construction that sliced the four-lane highway into a two-lane road for a little while, but it wasn’t bad at all. I was making good time. I took the exit that would take me West on Hwy 2, and got to the bottom of the ramp, and the GPS told me to turn left, go under the bridge. I, of course, would have done just that except the road to the left under the bridge was gone. Completely gone. In its place was dirt and trucks and people wearing hard hats.

This was a bit disconcerting. My GPS was happily chirping away, “Turn left!” and offering comforting little bell sounds. But there was no left turn. At this point, I realized I was on my own. And being on my own, with my marvelous sense of direction, I noticed that on the other side of the trucks and dirt and hard hats, there were a couple of gas stations with cars in them and a Wendy’s that seemed to be buzzing, and I realized that all I had to do was go to the next exit, turn around, and take the I-29 South exit on the other side of the bridge. I felt quite sure that this is what Magellan would have done.

So I got back on the highway, and the GPS alerted me that the next exit was seven miles away. Ah well. A fifteen-minute detour. Not too bad. I went to the next exit, the Percival, Iowa exit, and I thought about Troy Percival, and I turned around and headed back South. I’m pretty sure it was right about this time that I noticed that my gas warning light had popped on.

* * *

If you have an innately good sense of direction — and I’m stunned by how many people do — you already know that the South Exit for Highway 2 was entirely closed. Well, of course it was. You couldn’t even get on the ramp. Now, I was irritated. I looked down at my GPS, which told me — still a bit too happily — that the next exit was 10 miles away. Ten stinking miles. So now you could add 20 more minutes to this trip, and that’s even assuming that I could figure out a way to get on to Highway 2.

I called the GPS people — this was in a rental car, and there is a number on the GPS to call when you are incompetent. I’m not sure if the number is ONLY for incompetent people, but I’d cleared that hurdle and so I called and explained my situation. The woman on the phone was very nice and very understanding and she looked for an alternate route. While she looked, I closed in on the next exit, the one that was 10 miles away, and, you bet, it was closed. Oh yeah. Completely closed.

When the gas light comes on in a car, I tend to think that in case of emergency I have 50 miles left. I don’t know where that number “50” came from, but that’s somehow burned in my brain. And so I was doing some quick math in my head while the GPS woman looked up a way to get me to Lincoln. I don’t think the light was on very long before I noticed it. I had driven about 10 miles on the light, and it looked like I had another nine miles to the NEXT exit. That was 19 miles. To get back up to the Percival Exit — which I figured would be would be my best best — was another 20 miles at least. That didn’t give me much wiggle room.

The woman found a solution. She said that if I went up to the exit after Percival, I could turn right and eventually get to Highway 2. It sounded as reasonable as anything else. I eventually was able to turn around, drive back up North, past to the Percival exit to the Thurman exit. I turned right. The GPS did not think this was a good move. I know because she told me, “When possible, make a legal U-Turn.”

And then she told again, “When possible, make a legal U-Turn.”

And then she said: “Hell, I don’t care if it’s legal or not, go the other way. Also, stop intentionally walking people in the early innings of postseason games. Sheesh.”

The GPS was right. The right turn led to what appeared to be somebody’s driveway. I was beginning to grow desperate. I asked the GPS to find me a route, and this time I said to “Use The Least Number of Freeways.” Sure enough, the GPS sent me past the interstate to what looked to me like a small but promising country road. I turned left.

I’d say it was a good 400 feet before it turned into a dirt road.

* * *

There is something liberating about driving on a dirt road. There is the sound of pebbles bashing against the underside of the car. There’s the dust trail you leave behind. Whenever I drive on a dirt road, I feel a little bit like Junior Johnson riding moonshine. OK, a very little bit, but it’s there.

The most liberating part of driving on a dirt road is that it’s loaded with possibility. You might just pop out EXACTLY where you wanted to be, just like they do in the movies when they go off-roading. The GPS told me I needed to be on this particularly bumpy and lonely dirt road for five miles, which I had to say seemed promising to me. Five miles is a pretty long distance. I imagined it taking me right to Highway 2, maybe even knocking a few minutes off my staggering trip. Hey I deserved a break. I was beginning to feel good about it, even though the car was taking a beating and the needle of my gas gauge was getting perilously close to the E line.

And then I looked to the left.

And I realized that this stupid dirt road was running EXACTLY PARALLEL with the Interstate.

I’d say this is about when the panic hit. I was in the middle of nowhere. I was getting no cell service. I was about to run out of gas. All I had at this moment was my GPS, and I had to admit she was firm in her conviction. She wanted me to get to the end of the dirt road, take a right on another country road (not a dirt road, this time), and this would take me to Highway 2. The GPS even said there was a gas station on the way.

So I took the right. And it was indeed a real road, not a dirt road. As for the rest, well, two things. One, the gas station was closed. I don’t mean it had just closed. By my best estimate, it had closed in 1957. It still had a sign that said, “Bring your Model T here.” Two, the GPS might have been right about the road eventually taking me to Highway 2, but before I got there I came upon a giant sign that said “Road Closed,” and the five dump trucks blocking the road just behind it suggested that it really was closed.

* * *

I’d say this was when the swearing began. I really don’t swear. I’ve told this before, but when I was in high school I had a friend named Jay who would hit me hard in the shoulder every time I swore. At first, this was annoying, and it sparked me to punch him back in the shoulder and swear even more often and even more vividly. Unfortunately for me, Jay was quite committed to the hitting me in the shoulder every time I swore routine, and Jay was a lot bigger than me, and at some point it just seemed a lot more sensible to stop swearing. I never really picked up the habit again after that. I’m not opposed to swearing — in fact, consider it an art form in the most capable hands — but it’s not for me. Now, if I swear, I sound impossibly out of date, like someone else saying “Fiddlesticks!” or “Great Scott!” So I generally leave swearing to the experts, and focus on other things.

But, really, there was nothing to do but swear. I was clearly not going to make it to Lincoln, which meant this whole trip had been a failure. But now there was the exciting new possibility of running out of gas three counties away from the nearest town. I decided that there really was nothing left to do except get back on the Interstate, head back South, and hope for the best. I had probably already driven the 50 miles I had given myself, maybe more, but I thought I saw a sliver of space between the needle and the E line, maybe enough to get me to a gas station somewhere. I once more turned to my GPS, asked her where I might find a gas station. She pointed me once more to that gas station on that closed road that had closed before the Beatles hit America. At this point, I took a baseball bat and smashed the GPS. No, wait, no I didn’t. I asked for a better choice. She said there was one about 13 miles South. I figured I might as well make a run for it.

* * *

Once more: If you have even a decent sense of direction and had been following the winding curves of this story, you will know that the gas station 13 miles South was the one on Highway 2, the one with the closed exit ramp, the one I had seen across the construction. I had not yet pieced together this useful bit of information. To be perfectly honest about it, I did not expect the car to make it the necessary 13 miles, and so I was spending all my energy swearing. I did call my wife to ask her for the AAA number. She wanted me to explain how this happened. I did not have time to go over the 2,374 words I have written so far. I told her to please text me the number, gently cutting her off when she started to tell me the story about how she once had to use AAA to …

The car — a Nissan — performed magnificently. I had long before turned off all the air vents, I was going what I deemed to be the most gas efficient speed (I figured it was 61 mph … I guess it’s actually 55 mph. Heck, the speed limit was 70). And it was about two miles from the exit that I realized what you already knew in the last paragraph. The gas station that the GPS was pointing me to was on the end of the closed exit ramp.

Again, I did some math in my head. I knew that the exit after Highway 2 was closed, and that the exit after that had no gas. So that meant I would have to go at least 25 more miles to get to a gas station. The needle was now on the wrong side of the E line, and I knew there was no chance i would make it another 25 miles. It was now or never. And so I went around the “Ramp closed,” sign, avoided the orange cones, and drove down the ramp. I turned right and got into the giant parking lot with the two gas stations. I was not proud of what I had done — I’m the sort of person who will stop at a red light for a half hour until I realize it’s broken — but I’d convinced myself that I had little choice. I even had my speech prepared if a police officer pulled me over.

Anyway, I had made it to the gas station with all the cars and people in it. Thing is, well, you know how the worst kinds of dreams seem to be over and then, you realize, they are not over? Right. The gas station wasn’t in working order. Neither was the other one in the parking lot. The cars I had seen in the parking lot belonged to road construction workers. The people I saw in the parking lot were there to either put in new gas pumps or to blow the place up, I have no idea. All I knew was that I was going to be in Iowa for the rest of my life.

I turned the car around and started to leave and realized that the ramp back up to the Interstate was also closed. There was orange fencing blocking the entire way. I thought about asking for help from one of the construction workers, but I didn’t have any idea how I could explain what had happened or how I had even ended up there. I saw a way around the orange fencing, drove off road, and headed back on to I-29 and the certain doom of running out of gas 20 miles from an exit.

* * *

It turns out that cars — or, anyway, this particular brand of car — can go a lot longer with the gas light blinking than you might expect. I suppose that’s a helpful feature, sort of like telling someone who is always late that the dinner is scheduled 45 minutes before it is actually scheduled. I somehow made it to the next exit, the one that was closed, and I somehow made it to the exit after that, the one that had no gas station. The GPS alerted me that I still had five more miles to go after that to get to a gas station, and I sort of relaxed. I could make it five miles even if the car stopped right there. It would be a tremendous pain in the neck. But I could physically do it. Then it was four miles. Then three. Then two. Then one.

The name of the town that saved me is Rock Port, Mo. I have since learned that Rock Port is the first city in the United States to have 100% of its power generated by wind, which is awesome. More importantly, though, it is a city with a gas station. According to the car manual, the car gas tank held 14 gallons. I pumped in in 14.1 gallons.

I eventually talked to Tom Osborne while sitting in my car in a McDonald’s parking lot in Mound City, and I’m grateful for the unbroken cell service. Osborne was wonderful, talking about his career, the things that matter in life and in football, the feelings he has about Joe Paterno. I wish I could have talked to him in person, but it really is important in life to count your blessings. At some point when he was telling a story, I happened to glance down at my GPS. And I saw its name.

Never Lost.

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33 Responses to GPS And a Sportswriter’s Life

  1. Mike says:

    Circle me Magellan!

  2. Kent says:

    Interesting: my GPS always wants to send me to Lincoln through Omaha, which I usually ignore, but which is now the only way to go.

  3. tarhoosier says:

    I was headed south from Sioux City to Omaha last month and saw that I-29 was closed ahead. I pulled off at an Iowa rest station where detour information was advertised as available. The rest area was closed and the “information” was a map that showed the detour was at exit 35, and then east about 50 miles before turning south into Missouri and then…Nothing. Since this was an Iowa rest area and they posted an Iowa map the Missouri-bound people were just on their own. At exit 35 all the sheeple were in a line extending back onto the interstate and I pressed on to the final exit at 32. There was only one vehicle who traveled with me. We had no option but to cross the Mo. River at this point at Plattsmouth NE, and pay a 1.25$ toll on a bridge from 1929 that had tractor trailers crossing with their mirrors folded in order to avoid impact. Plattsmouth is a fabulous town, all exalted humility, Rockwellian architecture in a mid-American robust style. Then South through Nebraska and serendipity and beauty and loveliness abounded.
    We decided later that the exit 35 detour must take into account tandem trailers, overweight and size vehicles and overheight limits that require a very round-about detour of man, many miles.
    We slept happily in Kansas City.

  4. tarhoosier says:

    And no GPS was involved. Just maps, thinking and intuition.

  5. Malt Man says:

    It’s funny; put me just about anywhere and I can find my way with no problems and no help needed. Give me the GPS, however, and I manage to get myself completely lost. Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, not some machine.

  6. Mark Coale says:

    I think its funny that my gps (built into my civic hybrid) will give me one set of directions to get to a place and a different set of directions to get home.

    Also, my gps is a few years out of date (screw $150 for the cd rom update) and its always odd to be driving on an unverified atretch of road that is blank, and the miles to go/time to go numbers stop changing.

  7. Tangotiger says:

    I think my light gives me about 60 minutes of driving.

    Best way to figure it out is to take out your manual, and see how big the gas tank is. Mine is around 18 gallons. Then, when the light comes on, set your trip odometer to zero. Pull into a gas station at some point (preferably right away). Fill up the tank. In my case, I’d fill up about 16 gallons. So, I know I have 2 gallons left in the tank when the light goes on (plus whatever my odometer reading shows). If you do 20/30mpg, then you’ve got 40 miles in the city and 60 miles on the highway. Which would be roughly 60 minutes either way.

    I would hope everyone does this, rather than pull a Kramer!

  8. Harrison says:

    I moved six weeks ago when I started a new job. I live 22 miles from my place of employment. I have to make roughly 8 turns too get from home to work. I am so dependent on the GPS directions that I could only name half of the roads that I drive on, and put it about 50/50 that I could make it from one location to the other without it.

  9. Carl says:

    My favorite Joe Posnanski essays are ones clearly inspired by irritation. Not that I wish you a series of unfortunate events, Joe, but you made a silk purse from this particular sow’s ear.

  10. alcaniglia says:

    The first thing I thought about when I saw your plan is that that road is closed. Your best bet would have been to the backroads through Northeast Kansas and southeast Nebraska.

  11. Mark Coale says:

    I bet Joe’s iPad would give him the correct directions.

  12. I really love the teasers about the Joe Pa book. I wonder whether Tom Osborne wishes his team could have played Joe’s back in 1994. Would’ve have been the game.

  13. daveyhead says:

    A friend said that he wished you would stick to writing about sports, and I told him i would happily read 3500 words on having a new toilet put in. My favorite part was your description of how your wife gives directions. In my job, I frequently have to offer telephone tech support, and now I realize that it has been Mrs. P calling all those times.

  14. Kevin says:

    1.) I-29 North from Kansas City to Omaha.
    2.) I-80 West to Lincoln from Omaha.
    3.) Profit.

  15. GregTamblyn says:

    Good writing, Joe. What a bummer to miss Osborne in person.

    Some people from France were here in KC last week for a wedding, and wanted to go shopping. A friend told them to go to Oak Park Mall. They entered “Oak Park” in the car GPS and it came up Oak Park Center, which they assumed was the same thing. It was an hour and a half driving in the wrong direction before they realized the GPS was taking them to Chicago.

    Great description of your wife’s directions. It’s a scientific fact that women and men (in general) orient themselves differently. Women tend to use landmarks, while men use direction and distance. As a human with a Y chromosome, I always found it endlessly frustrating to get landmark directions from a XX. But it’s all in the brain. The way we’re wired.

  16. Deacon Drake says:

    Impressive that there is no open gas station within all of SW Iowa… even the drive from Flagstaff to Albuquerque shows SOME signs of civilization.

  17. feitcanwrite says:

    An unfortunate side-effect of your move from KC to NC is your apparent lack of knowledge about the epic flooding on the Missouri River this year.

    The roads were closed because Hwy 2 in Iowa and parts of I-29 in Iowa and Missouri were UNDER the Mighty Mo for the better part of the summer. Heck – you’re lucky your meeting with T.O. was Monday as I-29 just reopened a week or two ago.

    It’s a shame you missed out on an opportunity to enjoy The Good Life, and an even bigger shame that your GPS (or the person you spoke to) couldn’t tell you that had you continued north to Hwy 34 (the Plattsmouth, NE exit) you would have been golden. Hwy 34 takes you straight into Lincoln and would have left you 6 blocks from the Stadium.

  18. Roby says:

    After my first time using, and getting led astray by, a “NeverLost” system in a rental car (some years ago, when GPS was still a new-fangled thing), I quickly renamed it “Seld-M-Lost” (in homage to the Simpsons’ monorail episode).

  19. wee 162 says:

    I had a day in Palma, Majorca (Spain) last week waiting on a flight out at 10pm. I’d had a brief look at google maps and decided that I had a rough idea of where the bus station that I would be dropped off was and the bits and pieces I wanted to see. But not too much research. Didn’t have to. I could use my phone. Even without 3g I had the map open for Palma and could check that. Of course, the map disappeared for some as yet unexplained reason and I had to navigate my way round a city I’d never set eyes on before.

    My solution. Go old school. Navigation by the sun. Bus station in the north of the city, port, cathedral etc in the south. So head towards the sun. It was really quite pleasant being semi lost for a while without any time pressure and having none of the things I realised I take utterly for granted like google maps available.

  20. brhalbleib says:


    All Kansans are good with directions, just like your wife. Wide open spaces that you see forever in every direction plus perfectly 1 mile square grids for the county roads make directions pretty easy to learn as a child.

    BTW, since Nebraska and Iowa probably also have the 1 mile square grids getting anywhere should have been easy following the country roads, provided you could cross the Big Muddy.

  21. To Greg: your friends should have let the GPS bring them all the way to the Chicago area Oak Park. It’s a great town, home to Hemingway AND Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta), plus the home and studio of Frank Llyod Wright. It’s the place to be (not that I’m biased)!

    Also, my car doesn’t even have a gas light (still rocking a ’97 Civic), so it’s an even greater adventure when I get low.

  22. polemicedda says:

    Oh my. An Everlost? It was had my wife and I drive for 30 minutes to find a BBQ restaurant. We ended up in a residential culdesac at least a couple miles away from the nearest business of any sort. It just sounded so dang confident. I just assumed it knew what it was doing.

  23. Dinky says:

    Every Japanese car I’ve owned had at least 90 miles from when the idiot light went on until it ran out of gas. One of them even had two different idiot lights. I’ve never run out of gas, but I can interpolate from a 17.5 gallon gas tank needing 17.1 gallons of gas when I finally filled it up. Yes, the wife was very unhappy I was cutting it that close, even though we had an extra 12 miles to spare.

    As for the GPS, it is still worth scouting the trip on Google Maps or whatever mapping software you prefer. That will enable you to recognize the “Detour” sign that was probably 25 miles earlier at US-136, when you still thought your GPS was sufficient. Going up to Omaha would have added 45 minutes to your trip. A truly paranoid person (like all bridge players or computer programmers) will also check if available for that area, or perhaps the state departments of transportation, to check for road closures. So the lesson is: if you don’t want to write these wonderful columns, glance at a map before leaving. I’m selfishly with Carl, hoping you continue to depend on your GPS.

    What my wife ALWAYS does these days at the first signs of trouble is call me. “Are you at your computer? Tell me how to get from….” Feel free to call me, any time day or night, for directions: some people are worth helping.

  24. KCJoe says:

    Classic. And entertaining as usual.

    My wife is from Lincoln and her family is still there. We’ve made the trip a lot. We refer to that little stretch of Iowa on HWY 2 as the “windiest place on earth” as we always stop there and no matter how many times we do it we are shocked by how windy and cold it is.


  25. allan says:

    3 Highly Amusing Lines That Come Out Of Nowhere:

    1. I felt quite sure that this is what Magellan would have done.

    2. … and I thought about Troy Percival …

    3. I did not have time to go over the 2,374 words I have written so far.

  26. Larry says:

    One of my favorites. Always a joy to get an account of your day to day life.

  27. Frankie B says:

    These are by far your funniest pieces, Joe. They’re so funny that I do not feel the least bit guilty about laughing at your predicaments, particularly because you so obviously enjoy writing them. They’re laugh out loud funny. I need to remember to stop eating while i’m reading one of these, because a couple of times I almost spit my food all over my keyboard and screen (the parts about your wife’s directions are absolute classic comedy). Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  28. NMark W says:

    My wife could be a long lost relative to Margo. I can ask her what time she’ll be home from her “Meals on Wheels” delivery route and she’ll tell me all of the twists, turns and drop-offs, people’s names, their afflictions, if they have pets and if they smoke. Then, I’ll ask her again what time she’ll be home and she gets this blank stare like, ‘Didn’t I just tell you!? You weren’t listening?”

  29. CMK says:

    I also once drove right past Philadelphia, even though it was my destination.

  30. Ben says:

    I have a sense of direction that rivals Joe’s for terribleness. My girlfriend, on the other hand, has a phenomenal one and enjoys letting me know this. She has the innate ability to look at the sun and know which direction she should be going. She can usually figure it out from there. The only time I’ve ever seen her disoriented was on an overcast day in a town we weren’t familiar with.

  31. feitcanwrite says:

    I hate to pour salt on a wound, but you probably should know that the Hwy 2 exit off of I-29 reopened this weekend.

    Had your meeting with Osborne been today instead of last week, you would have made it to Lincoln with no problems.

  32. Rufus says:

    My favorite line in my life is when my (then) 16 year-old daughter was in the car with me, backing out of the driveway, and she was in her “anti-dad” phase. She looked at me as we were approaching the street and said, “are you going the right way?” If I had been drinking milk at the time, it would’ve shot out my nose, but, being a good dad, I calmly said, “Yes, we are.”
    Thanks for sharing the everyday moments in your life, Joe. I’ve enjoyed every essay you’ve written. An inspiration to writers everywhere, on any subject.

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