I love exploring — as long as I am safe within my vehicle.
Back before satellite-linked global positioning units became common (they go all the way back to the 1980s, by the way; time does fly), I delighted in being somewhere, e.g. Washington, D.C., and trying to get somewhere else, e.g., Erie, Pa., by “dead reckoning.” I would leave the paper map folded up inside the glove compartment and, without even a compass, head north by northwest, taking whatever road came into view: Interstate, four-lane state road, two-lane asphalt, even gravel and clay.
“This is fun!” I would say.
If I were by myself, I would agree with myself, and enjoy myself.
Wives and children saw it differently.
“Are we THERE yettttt?” the children would whine.
From wives, I got stony silence or sarcasm.
“How are you feeling, Homer?” Maryellen would ask. That would be “Homer” as in “Homer Pigeon.”
These days, our vehicles are equipped with in-mirror compasses and GPS units. I still play “dead reckoning” without using either, but just knowing they are available takes some of the risk out of the process.
Some. But not all.
GPS units usually do precisely what they are programmed to do.
But on the big curve in front of our house, and down the steep gravel Park Road that plunges away from its apex, the limitations of GPS units have become painfully, even dangerously, apparent.
The paved road, Caldwell Corners Road, swoops northward from Interstate 80, then east to connect to Route 36 above Brookville, sending travelers north to Sigel, Marienville and New York State, or vice-versa.
But if one’s GPS is set to “shortest route,” or is not set to “avoid unpaved roads,” (the settings vary by model), distress beckons and disaster becomes real.
The frantic barking of our dogs alerted us last month to an improbable sight out our front door.
There, looming like a wrecked ship, stood the tilted-up cab of a tractor-trailer, stuck in the act of trying to come up that steep dirt Park Road and then, following the GPS, turn right onto the paved road to get back onto Route 36.
Coming south on Route 36 from Sigel toward Brookville, many GPS units tell drivers to turn onto the three-mile-long Park Road as the “shortest route.”
That it is.
It is also narrow, gravel, slippery, twisty-turny, with two steep slopes and/or high grades.
Behind the stuck tractor hung a “saddlebagged” empty semi-trailer.
Its driver worked frenetically to lower the trailer’s front stands in the vain hope of getting it unstuck.
He asked for lumber. We offered some cribbing 4x4s stored in our barn.
Still no go.
Happily, a guy driving a construction firm’s pickup, with a lot of knowledge about semis, came onto the scene, followed immediately by another knowledgeable local resident. Together, they persuaded the driver to swap the 4x4 cribbing for some long, thick 2x10 planks we also had. Those they shoved under the in-the-air rear axle of the tractor.
Then, instead of continuing to try to turn right, they persuaded the by now flamoozled truck driver to back his rig down onto the dirt road. Once straightened, his tractor had more than enough power to pull the empty trailer back up the slope — and continue straight south to Interstate 80, only then turning east toward his destination, a trucking company in Brookville.
All’s well that ends well, right?
Three winters ago, a woman got off I-80 at Corsica, headed toward Bradford via Route 948. Her GPS told her that the “shortest route” would be to leave Route 948 via our Caldwell Corners road, then rejoin Route 36 above Brookville — with a hitch.
It was snowy and icy. Park Road, unseen except by the GPS, lurked at the curve. She took it — and slid out of control down the frozen dirt toward the first S-curve. Having no control, her car slid onto the embankment, then overturned. Firefighters freed her, amazingly without injury.
But still, today, the danger and potential death trap of Park Road, where even locals like us fear to tread in bad weather, lies unmarked.
I’ll bet that, across Pennsylvania, there are dozens or perhaps hundreds of similar GPS-inspired hazards.
Wouldn’t signs help? They could say:
Similar language could help travelers to avoid these latter-day traps ironically set by GPS devices that are supposed to avoid bad routes.
But that will not happen unless local residents or first responders, including police, firefighters and ambulance crews, alert PennDOT and township officials to the dangers.
In our case, such signs need to be at both ends of Park Road.
For my part, I am sending copies of this column to our township supervisors and to PennDOT.
For your part, please take the time to inform those officials of these hidden GPS-linked traps before more trucks get stuck or cars get sent spinning out of control – and people get hurt or killed.
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator.]