Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lifetime Presents...When GPS is not Your Friend: The Amy Whitley Story

Ok, so maybe I'm not actually the subject of a Lifetime Original whatever-you-do, don't-do-what-these-people-did movie, but last Friday, I came thisclose. (And honestly, isn't it really only a matter of time?)

My friend and I were on the planning committee for a party we threw last Saturday night. On Friday, we decided to car pool to the party host's home to set up for the event. The host lives in quite a remote location, so she gave us very specific directions. We had these directions with us. But we also had a GPS unit, so we plugged the address in and took off.

The following is a condensed (but accurate) account of what happened next:

Mistake #1: We fly right by the exit the party host indicated on I-5. Luckily, the GPS is telling us to go two more exits south, so at least we're half right, right? Ten minutes south, we take said exit, and nearly immediately find ourselves on a dirt road. "But that's ok, my friend (who's requested to remain nameless--as if you can in a Lifetime Original!) said, "because (host) lives on a dirt road, so maybe this one links up to it."

Seems like a sound argument to me. Until we come to a river spanning across the road. Not a creek. Not a wash. A I-wonder-if-we-have-the-proper-clearance-for-this-maneuver honest-to-goodness river. But it's cool, because we're in a Suburban. We do start to wonder though: if she was going to send her guests through a river, don't you think (host) would have mentioned that (instead of the railroad crossing, perhaps) in her directions? But no matter: we're through it. And the boys thought it was great fun. (Did I mention we have our boys in the back seat? Our youngest, both age 5. Now you know.)

Still, that river nags at us. "Do you think we should turn around?" my friend (let's just call her Jane) asks.

"Maybe next place you have a chance," I say, because suddenly, the dirt road is only the width of one lane, with a drop-off on one side and a steep hill on the other. No way is the Suburban going to do a three-point-turn anywhere near here.

Mistake #2: We get our chance, and blow it. We finally come to a space in the road that may have been a turn-out but was more likely where rain has eroded part of the cliff-side, widening the single lane. To give you a better sense of time and space, I'll tell you that at this point, we've been driving on the dirt for at least 20 minutes. We hesitate, but the GPS (that had done so much for us so far, if you'll excuse the dripping sarcasm) is indicating that we only had five more miles on this road, and that we've already come six. "At this point," I say, "we might as well keep going."

Five minutes later, the road becomes so rutted the boys are bouncing around in the back seat. Five minutes after that, Jane puts the Suburban into four-wheel-drive. Twenty more minutes after that, we finally get to the end of that five miles. There's an intersection...with another forest service road.

"Recalculating...recalculating..." the GPS lady says pleasantly, and we look at each other. It hadn't quite occurred to us that there would be more after those first 11 miles. "Turn left in...200 feet...and continue 8.3 miles to...intersection of...



Mistake #3: We continue.  I know, I know...this is the point of the Lifetime movie where you've run out of popcorn and on your way to the kitchen, you're muttering at Valerie Bertinelli, "Why are you doing that? Just turn around already!" But when you're in the Lifetime movie, it doesn't seem so obvious. I know this now. I'm sorry, Valerie.

Oh, and another fun fact: the gas gauge is now on 1/8 a tank. And the boys have grown weary of looking out the window at trees and are starting to wonder why we didn't bring the DVD player, if we were going on an extended road trip. To pass the time, Jane and I start taking inventory of what we have in the car, survival-wise. It's an odd (but promising) assortment:

three bouquets of flowers
two folding tables
three tablecloths
two dozen bandanas
china dessert plates for 40
three bottles of club soda
three bottles of Coca Cola
two bottles of top shelf tequila
a watering can
a small bag of snacks
a zip-lock baggie of rice crackers

The gas gauge slips a little lower. I reach casually into the back seat and slide the bag of snacks away from the kids. They're now throwing animal crackers at each other, and I'm thinking that's not the best use of our resources. I give them each a Capri Sun and a quarter of a granola bar and tell them the game it to not eat and drink it all at once.

At about the six mile mark of this next segment of dirt road, we see a US Forest Service truck parked on the side of a wash. Even though the vehicle is empty, it makes us feel a little better. At the seven mile mark, there's a fork in the road. Hmmm.

We make a choice, and stand by it. Our GPS tells us we've now crossed the border from Oregon to California, then back again. As we zig-zag over the mountains around hairpin turns, we start to wonder aloud what conclusions people will draw when our remains are found in 20 years or so. "Maybe we'll be on 20/20," I suggest. "The voice-over will be, 'Though their location has been revealed, the real question remains: what were Amy and Jane doing so far from civilization, driving a spiderweb of forest service roads toward the California coast, their car stocked with expensive liquor and tablecloths? Why had they decided to make a break for it together, and even more mysteriously, why had they taken their children?'

Mistake #4: Not pouring the tequila into the gas tank. We reach the end of our next eight miles. We hold our breath for good news, but: "Recalculating..." says the GPS whore, er, lady. When the device finally refreshes with its next screen of criss-crossing roads, it's estimating another seven miles 'to destination'. We look at each other in (yet more) indecision with a generous dollop of dismay. We've already driven at least 18 miles on these roads. To go back now would be like getting 2/3 across a river, deciding we can't do it, and swimming all the way back. The low fuel light blinks on.

Mistake #5: We continue. On and on and on. We are only 2 miles from that elusive 'destination' when Jane's phone buzzes. (I should mention that at this point, we've given both our iPhones to the boys in an attempt to quiet them.) I grab it; it's (host). I attempt to describe where we are, adding that we're almost there, and then my heart sinks as she delivers the bad news: "Oh, you can't get to my house from that road. It won't go through."

Mistake #6: We don't cry. I mean, it would have been warranted. But I want it on the record that we don't. In fact, we're pretty calm. We're even laughing a bit hysterically at this point. We drive on until we can turn around, and then we head back. "Are we going home?!" the boys wail. I dole out another quarter of a granola bar, then take a bite of one myself. Should I mention that all this GPS-screen navigating in conjunction with the hairpin turns have made me sick?

We turn a corner on the road, and Jane hits the brakes. When I look up from the GPS screen, a cow is blocking our path. Allow me to repeat: a cow is staring us down in the center of the road. It is at this point that Jane turns to me and says, "This is making the blog, isn't it?"

Oh, it's so making the blog. I steal an iPhone back from the kids and take a picture. Here's our friend after we've urged him back to the side of the road.

My reasoning is that perhaps when they find our car, they can piece together what happened to us by the photographic evidence.

We speculate how long it will take us to go completely native, should we be stranded here indefinitely. We give the boys two hours, max, to go Tarzan on us, and ourselves only marginally longer. I figure we'll be skinning that cow, digging for taproots, and saying 'fundraiser committee who?' within a week.

I dwell for a moment on how embarrassing it will be when I have to call Search and Rescue and tell them I've gotten myself lost. But it's probably a mute point, because both our phones are now low on battery, since we've been allowing the boys free access to DoodleJump.

We take the phones away. The boys now entertain themselves with random screaming.

Mistake #7: We admit what we've done. Jane's husband calls to check in. I answer the phone and give him the short version (which is to say, not the version you're all getting) of our current situation in my best 'we're not at all worried' voice before the phone can go dead. I end by asking him how long he can typically drive after his fuel light comes on in his car. (I phrase this in such a way as to sound like I'm merely casually inquiring.) 

He's not fooled. "Why?" he asks.

"Oh, it's just been on for the last four miles is all."

There's a long pause, then: "Are you serious?" He sounds genuinely unsure.

Another pause after I confirm this. Then: "Where exactly are you?"


To the best of our knowledge, this is where:

We lose connection. Jane has to hit the brakes again as a flock of wild turkeys cross our path. They're the size of small dogs, I kid you not. We come to the Forest Service truck; an employee is just getting in it. We stop and ask her how much further it is to the freeway. She thinks it's only a few miles, and so we fill her in on our gas situation, just in case she comes across us in a few minutes on the side of the road, and continue on. I peg her as the one interviewed in some sheriff department interrogation room a couple days from now as the last known person to see us alive.

Two miles from the freeway, we hit something. The tires make an ominous scraping sound, and we stop. For about ten horrible seconds, I think we've popped a tire. But no; there's just a huge branch caught under the wheel. Jane yanks it out. (I think she's already gone half-native.) We continue. When we see our river flowing across the road up ahead, we whoop in celebration. The boys observe that hey, we've been here before.

Conclusion: we make it. On fumes. Onto the freeway and to the next exit. Where we find a gas station. And look at our watches. Yes, what should have been a 30 minute drive has taken us 2.5 hours.

We get back on the freeway headed the right direction, and follow (host's) directions. We arrive at her house a mere ten minutes later.

Isn't it lovely? (Notice how little light is left in the day?)

Moral of the story: don't bet in favor of a computer chip (which doesn't know the difference between a rutted dirt road and an interstate) over a real, live person who lives at your destination and drives it every day.

Also? Fuel and potential warmth is overrated: we should have drunk at least one bottle of that top-shelf tequila while we had the chance.

(Although if we had, we'd probably still be out there.)

This post has been included in Chatting at the Sky's Tuesdays Unwrapped. I'm unwrapping adventure, I guess!
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