As a career country gal, I take pride in finding the most efficient—or at least the shortest—route between two points. In our mountain country of Wyoming, that is not always a straight line or even the distance the proverbial crow can fly. And whoever thought that following crows was a good idea anyway?
In an effort to enhance our marriage, however, I gave my husband a GPS navigator for Christmas. For some reason, he has not always appreciated my efforts to guide us in the right direction. And the truth is, though I hate to admit it, I have been wrong on the rare occasion. As our 6-year-old granddaughter noted, we sometimes find ourselves "struggling around."
We were thrilled to learn that our global positioning navigator, whom we dubbed "Sheila" for her Australian accent, could guide us flawlessly through the streets of Denver. While Sheila does not always—in my opinion—take the most efficient route, she does get us to where we are going without entering suburban cul-de-sacs or going the wrong way on one-way streets. Originally, our navigator had a woman's voice with an American accent, but I think my husband thought it sounded too much like me.
Luckily, in our country travels, which encompasses most of the traveling we do, we actually know where we are going. We have the advantage of lots of mountains and other landmarks, and though this sometimes leads us on obscure two-track roads, at least we know that if we are going in the general direction of, say, Battle Mountain, we are on the right track.
The exception to this is when we are moving our sheep camp between summer and winter grazing grounds. Much of this trail crosses the oil patch, where a spaghetti of new roads abounds. On many occasions, we have taken a really good-looking road in what is clearly the right direction only to dead-end at a well site. Why, you may ask, didn't we know that? Because of all the brand-new roads that turn last week's first left into this week's third left. Presto: The GPS is lost.
We've also learned that the GPS is of zero help when one is crossing, say, the Red Desert. Last week, we took a familiar shortcut in Wyoming from Wamsutter to Jeffrey City. This is a good county road that we've traveled many times. It isn't paved, but it not only passes our sheep camps, it also passes a lot of oil and gas wells and a uranium processing mill. Compared to many roads we travel, it is practically a super-highway, only without the people.
I was experimenting with Sheila's smarts, so I set Baggs as our starting point and Thermopolis, Wyo., where we were receiving cattle, as the destination. Sheila was pretty happy until we turned west instead of east on Interstate 80. She kept directing us to turn off at every exit, so that we might actually travel in the right direction.
Sheila seemed to become increasingly anxious and irritable as we ignored call after call to "turn left" or "turn right" on the upcoming "Red Desset Road." It seems odd, but in Sheila's view, all the roads off Sweetwater County Road 23 have the same, incorrectly spelled name. But we happened to know that following Sheila's directions in this instance would lead to us getting stuck in a snowdrift somewhere on Cyclone Rim.
This, as it turns out, was the exact fate of travelers in no less than three separate vehicles during New Year's week. One traveler from Orlando, Fla., ended up stuck somewhere northeast of Rawlins when his GPS directed him to a shorter route, reported the Rawlins Daily Times. He was rescued by a sheriff's deputy and had to have his car towed.
One of the other travelers had to be retrieved by Carbon County Search and Rescue while following an alternative route after I-80 was closed due to high winds, blowing snow and no visibility. Earth to GPS trekker: If the interstate is closed because of bad weather, the alternate unpaved road is probably not the best choice.
As Carbon County Sheriff Jerry Colson put it, "When a shortcut takes you from a paved highway to a dirt road, that may be your first clue it's not the right way to go."
We may "struggle around" while traveling in the city, but we are pretty adept at finding our way around in the rural landscape. Now if we could just get Sheila to calm down without having to be unplugged.
Sharon O'Toole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a sheep and cattle rancher in Savery, Wyoming.