Saturday, September 8, 2012

Stag Hill, Mahwah, NJ

I like to argue with GPS units. More specifically, I like to prove them wrong and it drives my wife nuts. I'm never without good cause, at least in my mind, for protesting the calculated route. And I'm always right. And the evidence I am always right are the countless times when I have been right. Except when I've been wrong. But those times have been so few and far between that I can almost discount them. Unfortunately the number of times I claim I've been vindicated don't tally with the number of times when my wife says I erred. I guess that makes her as bad as the GPS unit. At least at calculating route effectiveness. After all, I'm right so often...nearly all the time.

And it isn't a male thing. Is it? I generally have a very good sense of awareness of where I am in space and time. I tend to know what direction I am heading, or can work it out by the position of the sun and the rough time of day. I know how to detect North when in a forest. I can work out directions from the stars. I can generally backtrack turns in my head when driving to figure out whether I should turn left or right at the next junction. At a fork in a trail I have good instinct for taking one rather than the other. How could I ever be wrong when up against a GPS unit?

It doesn't matter whether I am talking about the portable Garmin unit I plug into my car, or the built in model in my wife's car, these units speak in such a smugly, annoyingly polite accent they deserve to be challenged every time they say something. It's not just that they are wrong, they deserve to be wrong. And I like to prove it.

Apparently it is now possible to download regional accents (as well as foreign language versions) to GPS units in both male and female voices. Who cares? Smug certitude is just as annoying from a New England female as it is in Irish brogue. Personally, I think these GPS companies have missed an opportunity to truly "connect" with their customers. I would like a GPS unit that spoke with an "attitude". Rather than accents, it would be preferable to select from speech styles, such as, 

"mildly sarcastic" ("Oh, who's a clever boy that he thinks he knows a quicker way than me?"), 

"moderately insulting" ("are you usually this stupid or are you making a special effort just for me?"), 

"extreme exasperation" ("any more nonsense from you and I'll switch myself off"), 

"unpredictably contrary" ("quick, turn left...left...left...errr, I meant right"), 

"Mitt Romney" ("if it makes you happier turn right, but I'm with you whatever way you choose"), 

"downright abusive" ("you complete and utter numbskull"), through to the coup de grace, 

the "Ozzy Osbourne" ("what the *?x# did you do then you $&-*^~#"). Now that would be something worth arguing with.

Rather than the purely descriptive "Recalculating..." it would be much more invigorating to hear "You blithering idiot, why don't you do as you are told?" If voice programmers could induce a sense of sporadic randomness into these responses it could even simulate an argument...of sorts...and make the outcome truly one of win-lose.

But I digress. I had neither GPS unit nor physical map on my recent work trip to New Jersey. Yes, I know...New Jersey...whatever was I doing there? After all, when making choices does NJ ever get a look in? I'll refrain from comments like "Grass? What color is that?" when talking about the local populace, but there are parts of the state that are beautiful. I regret that I was negatively influenced by much early train travel through the state when riding from Baltimore to New York almost every week a few years ago. The stretch from Trenton through to Newark was a miserable experience of graffiti and litter in a depressed industrial wasteland sprinkled with refineries and container depots. The locals didn't "live", they merely existed. But then I discovered western NJ...the bit that borders Pennsylvania...especially towards the north, and the rolling, wooded hills stretching to the Appalachian Trail were very pleasant.

I have never been that clear about the boundaries of the town of Mahwah, but the Sheraton Hotel, where I have stayed on many occasions, overlooks some nice green hills and I was tempted by some hilly roads and trails that crossed this terrain. I had neither map nor GPS, so nothing to argue with. I needed to trust that sense of judgment of mine. It was late afternoon and I enjoy running in strange territory, not quite sure what to expect. Leaving the hotel I passed close to a small group of Roe deer grazing on the verge. Alert, but unthreatened, they kept a close eye as I approached and then left. One day they won't be so lucky navigating traffic or a hunter's bullet.

Stag Hill road climbs away from a busy intersection through a wooded hillside. I was glad to be wearing a bright yellow tee shirt as the traffic that did pass had that aggressive city feel to it exuding both impatience and lack of care for others. The plan was to do a loop by running to Mountain Drive and then following some fire breaks through the woods. I was careful to align the direction of the sun to the route I was taking to help provide some bearing to which I could calibrate.

I was a little shocked by how steep some of these sections of road were. I'm used to steep climbs in Colorado, but somehow I had allowed my mind to assume that a road wouldn't be as steep...and it wasn't as steep, it just seemed that way. I was blowing quickly and my effort level was high as I reached the top of the 600 foot ascent after about 2.5 miles. Mountain Drive came a little quicker than I expected, but I headed west and looked out for the trail ahead. Climbing again through a residential block the road turned into a twisting and turning dirt trail. This didn't feel right. Google maps had seemed to suggest a pretty straight line and I was weaving all over the place. After about a half mile the trail did straighten and it felt like the general direction was right so I plodded along. The tall trees framing the fire break gave me little choice and the dense woodland was definitely to be avoided.

I wasn't wearing trail shoes and had to dance around deep rain pools and muddy sections, but the running was interesting. The direct line of the firebreak cut across the undulations of the hill side and there were some very steep sections, both up and down and the trail turned very rocky and unstable in many places. 

I really dislike the disrespect some of my fellow humans show for their environment. Our "throw-away" culture extends far beyond household trash to old motor vehicles, shopping carts and household appliances, all rusting and decaying and fouling what would otherwise be very pleasant countryside. I don't know what they are thinking as they foul their nests. It would be no surprise to find that some of the most vociferous deniers of global warming come from this same section of the population.

I kept my eye on the declining sunlight as it colored the treetops and felt confident that my direction was right and, sure enough, I came to a trail junction that matched what I recalled from the map. With no hesitation I turned left and knew that in about 1.5 miles I would hit the road. This section was particularly bad for litter and rusting vehicles yet, paradoxically, was teeming with wildlife. About 20 deer skipped across the trail just in front of me and I gave a wide berth to a slower moving skunk. 

With my thoughts drifting and my eyes only casually scanning the route ahead I was startled by a loud crack and a group of rabbits scattering in the grass only a few steps in front of me. A man with a gun emerged from the trees to claim his prize completely unconcerned by my proximity and clearly disinterested in the obvious danger he had caused. Grabbing his gun and twisting the barrel into a figure eight quickly crossed my mind but I quickly recalled very good advice my father gave me many years ago - never argue with people who carry guns, or with those who can fight back with ink (newspapers). I completely ignored the hunter and took pleasure from him missing his target. I clapped my hands loudly and the rabbits who had settled further up the trail bounced into the woods. These are small pleasures in life. 200 yards further up the trail I passed a sign declaring hunting to be illegal in the area and quickly concluded the futility of efforts to control those with such willful intent to break the law.

I had one objective on rejoining the road and turning back to the hotel - could I beat my personal best for running a mile. Currently set at 6 minutes 49 seconds (not exactly threatening any records) when running along the lake front in Chicago, I thought I might stand a good chance. But I had covered about 7.5 miles already and had also done over 1000 feet of ascent. Still, I could try. I pushed myself as quick as I was able on the relatively flat finish. I checked my watch and had covered a half mile in 3 minutes 20 seconds, so definitely on target. But the second half mile was too hard. I was tiring and I also knew there was a 400 yard climb just around the corner. I glanced at my watch as I completed the measured mile - 7 minutes and 1 second. Not bad, but disappointing.

As I turned onto the hotel approach road the Roe deer were still grazing. Two had chosen to lie down and some younger deer were playing in long grass. I didn't much rate their chances of long term survival and pondered the destructive behavior of some humans. But don't get me started on guns...that is going to require an essay all of its own.

Still, some complex navigation was achieved without the need for a GPS and the arguments they provoke. I'll see if I can find an Ozzy Osbourne voice for my car GPS and then just watch for my wife's reaction when I switch it on. Maybe she won't be able to tell the difference.

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