Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

GPS and the Way to Dusty Death

The Sacramento Bee has a good article on death by GPS syndrome, in which visitors to a place like Death Valley arrive by car or SUV and follow their GPS units onto abandoned tracks marked on the electronic map as passable roads. This from the article, quoting Death Valley wilderness coordinator Charlie Callagan:
"People are renting vehicles with GPS and they have no idea how it works and they are willing to trust the GPS to lead them into the middle of nowhere." 
Two groups of sufferers are mentioned, four Germans and a mother and her boy. And there others whose bodies are yet to be found.

While people have always gotten themselves lost, it's easy to see how this happens even quicker with GPS units lacking current road information: 
  1. Regardless of what the "road" is like in the real world, the map functions on these direct the driver onto whichever road appears to provide the shortest distance between origin and destination; and
  2. The driver sets off without survival supplies, expecting a swift and easy passage through civilized country; and
  3. Instead gets stuck somewhere in the wilderness halfway down a rutted track that none of the locals use, since they know better; and
  4. This being a wilderness, there's no water, fuel, roadside assistance, and no cellphone communication either.
And all this at temperatures that can exceed 120F. The area where one driver got stuck is shown on this map in the Sac Bee. She survived long enough for rescue but her son didn't. 

Here's a satellite photo from Google showing the proper route in blue:
It's rugged and unforgiving country. One would hope travelers in such a strange land would bring with them the judgment and situational awareness to turn around when things are going bad, but sometimes they press on.

In 1998 while writing for Smithsonian I toured Nevada's Black Rock Desert, which can be another dangerous hot-spot. Okay, I did tote a GPS unit; it was a handy way to navigate between camps on and off the playa. But I also took topo maps and a compass, and lots of water.

During those meanderings I had the chance to visit with Washoe County Justice of the Peace Phil Thomas in Gerlach. Thomas showed me his aging pickup for desert travel, nicknamed the Grapes of Wrath. This snip from my article:
It's a brown and white four-wheel-drive Chevy of indeterminate age, and the bed is heaped with the stuff of survival: split firewood, an old washing machine tank that serves as a fire ring, jerricans of spare gasoline and water, two spare tires, an axe, chains, jacks, flares, assorted tools and a hose for transferring gasoline from one vehicle to another. This kind of gear is essential for the distant reaches of the Black Rock, but those venturing there better bring along a few other things, Thomas says: namely, "common sense and a knowledge of when to panic and when not to panic."
Another bit of sagebrush advice from Justice Thomas always stuck with me, and I quoted it later in Inviting Disaster:
"I use the four-wheel to get out of trouble, not get into it."

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