Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tomtom, turn left

by John D Ramsey

When Cara and Daniel were little, I taught them to vector. By vector, I mean that when you have a general idea of where you are, and you have a good idea where you want to be, you then follow roads that appear to connect here with there. You do not wander aimlessly, but rather maintain the chosen course unless and until correction is required. We would drive out into the country and then I would follow the kids' directions home. This little game never got us too lost, but served as educational entertainment on weekend afternoons. If you try this with your children make certain you have a full tank of gas. Today as adult drivers, Cara and Daniel are proficient navigators. They might even out-vector me. I win by taking credit for their proficiency.

This skill is old school now, however. Recently we bought a Tomtom One 3rd Edition. Tomtom is a GPS navigation device that is smaller than a PDA. When I worked on GPS projects in the 1990’s, devices were big black boxes that needed to connect to computers and antennas were the size of softballs. It took two antennas to know where you were because GPS had Selective Availability (SA). The satellite signal that the device translated into location drifted in and out for national security reasons. For precision, you needed a reference to a Coast Guard beacon to know where you were. Coast Guard beacons made SA irrelevant over much of the US, and former President Clinton put SA to rest in year 2000. Now GPS devices do quite well tracking locations without the complexity.

As GPS devices go, Tomtom is a humble entry, but it is utilitarian. Lisa has played with the Tomtom more than I have. She programmed in our home address, my work address, the church address, and a bunch of other places to where we already know how to navigate.

Lisa explained to me that just because she knows where something is located does not mean that she always knows the shortest route. She does not always begin a trip from home, and Tomtom is a navigation helper. When a destination is set, Tomtom dutifully will tell us in an audible voice each turn to take. Consequently, I turn the sound off, and usually just glance at the screen for information. Nevertheless, I have used Tomtom a little bit just to see if it can be trusted.

Tomtom has its quirks, some of which I find intriguing. For instance, when I am driving to the office, Tomtom wants me to turn right when I actually need to turn left. Tomtom, the company, is located in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I understand that Europeans have an aversion to work. Perhaps engineers train Tomtom to assume that Americans on their way to the office would also rather turn right than left. Once I turn left, however, Tomtom adapts and guides me to the office, even though we argue again about what exit to take. Still I wonder why Tomtom tells me to turn right instead of left on my way to church. I am certain that Europeans do not have an aversion to church considering all the religious holidays they celebrate by taking days off work.

Last Saturday we put Tomtom to the test, or vice versa. Claire wants to go to summer camp this year. Lisa feels trepidation about sending Claire to a camp with strangers. Lisa and her family have old friends, Bill and Carol, who operate Life Change Camp and Retreat Center about an hour and a half from our house. I have met Bill and Carol before, but it has been several years since either Lisa or I have seen them. Carol remembers seeing Claire as a toddler, but neither Bill nor Carol had ever met Gabby. We arranged to drive down on Saturday to see the camp first person, and reacquaint with Bill and Carol. What I remember hearing about Bill and Carol over several years is that they wanted to start a camping ministry. I do not recall for how long I had known of their dream, but I know it was many years in coming. I was glad for them and eager to see the camp.

Lisa programmed the camp’s address into Tomtom and brought printed directions, too. Lisa and I had a lot to talk about on the way down, so after a brief disagreement with Tomtom, I relented and decided to let Tomtom navigate. I did not pay attention to where I was, or how long I had been on a highway, or what landmarks appeared to be important. I would just glance occasionally at Tomtom to see that I was heading in the right direction. Lisa and I visited about important things from the week before and important things in the weeks ahead. It was a lovely beginning of a road trip.

Tomtom told me to take the first exit near our destination. I did. Tomtom took us down a highway for several miles. I did not even think about it. Tomtom told me to turn on a gravel road, and I realized that I had missed the turn that Tomtom had preferred. I turned on gravel and Tomtom navigated me back to blacktop. Lisa reached up and turned the sound back on.

Tomtom told me to follow the blacktop and I did. The blacktop ended and Tomtom told me to forge ahead. I checked Tomtom’s screen a little more carefully. It said that we had just a few miles to our destination. I drove on. Tomtom told me, “At the end of the road, turn left, then right.” I turned left, then right.

The road became narrower and the trees alongside the road became thicker. The tree branches hung down lower, but Tomtom kept pointing straight ahead. We were in a tunnel of tree branches on a narrow roadbed, and I began to wonder if buses ever came to Life Change Camp. Finally, there was a clearing in the trees and it revealed the truth. A sign read, “Road Closed, Flood Area.” Ahead of us was an old iron bridge. The road leading to the bridge looked muddy but passable. I glanced at Tomtom and saw that we were about two miles from Bill and Carol’s.

I drove slowly toward the bridge, paying close attention to the firmness of the road. It had been recently flooded, but it seemed firm. On the edges of the road, I could see tire tracks where adventurers had become stuck, so I stayed to the middle. I was watching the roadbed so intently that I had nearly come to the bridge before I noticed the concrete barricade. There was no passing this way. A closer look revealed a full creek barely below flood stage. This was no place to be driving.

I asked Tomtom to set a roadblock and Tomtom refused me. I turned around carefully making a three-point turn into five or six to keep my tires on dry ground. I began driving back the way I came and Tomtom kept telling me to make a U-turn when possible. No thanks, Tomtom.

It was time to vector. I came to an intersection where a right turn looked promising. I turned and immediately Tomtom was happy. We drove along following Tomtom’s advice until I realized that Tomtom was vectoring me back to the barricaded iron bridge. Sneaky Tomtom! I turned around and Tomtom immediately began to complain again.

We navigated back to the highway, and drove into town and filled the tank with gas. From the convenience store, Tomtom was confident it knew how to get to Life Change Camp. Tomtom’s optimism correlated with Lisa’s written instructions, so we decided to give Tomtom one more chance. As we were driving down the highway Tomtom announced, “In 700 yards, turn left.” I looked for an intersection but did not see one until Tomtom spoke again, “Turn left.” I braked hard and turned onto a gravel lane. Tomtom was happy directing us onward. I slowed down so that Claire could see a snapping turtle trying to cross the road.

As we drove the road narrowed. I told Lisa, “This doesn’t look very promising.” She asked for the name of the street. Of course, I did not know. I turned because Tomtom told me to. As the road deteriorated, I saw a culvert in front of us. I could tell that the road dropped off sharply on the other side and I slowed down to avoid becoming airborne.

As we drove over the hump, the nose of the Explorer pitched down and the girls in their seats bounced up. They cackled; what a thrill! We drove on until the road narrowed again. We could see in front of us that the road was flooded. There were no barricades at the end of this lane; just lots of water. We turned around again, and Tomtom objected. Now we approached the culvert from the opposite direction. It was like climbing a wall. I had to accelerate to make it over. The nose of the Explorer lifted skyward and then fell earthward again. The little girls howled with pleasure. As we approached the highway, we slowed down so that Claire could check the snapping turtle’s progress crossing the road. He had managed to move about 3 yards since we had passed the first time. Why was he crossing the road? I do not think he had much of a reason. The water was at the end of the lane.

We drove back to the highway, and Lisa now held the driving instructions in her hand. When I turned left, Tomtom recalculated the route, and this time (in response to competition) provided accurate directions to the camp. The roads leading to the camp were gravel, but well traveled. Little signs at each intersection signified the appropriate turns. Finally, we saw the large wooden sign by a gravel lane. Tomtom said, “Turn left.” We turned left. Tomtom said, “After 300 yards you have reached your destination.”

Tomtom was right. We had.

Life Change Camp was a lovely place. We walked from the lodge to the cabins and back again before thunderstorms pushed through. We sat with Bill and Carol on a screened in porch while the rain poured down. Gabby cozied to Carol on a swing. Her mom’s friend is her friend. Hummingbirds darted in and out of the rain to feed under the eaves.

Carol told Lisa that she and Bill do not take a salary from the camp. They have what they need living and working on site, but all the gifts that the camp receives goes into the essentials of building and maintaining the camp and ministering to people. Bill talked about how several churches came together to build the cabins over a weekend. He shared how they had started with practically nothing five years ago, but now they had a beautiful facility that can house 96 campers plus staff in the summer. They will build new cabins and a lodge sometime in the future. Lisa asked Bill what the theme the children’s camp would be. He answered, “Salvation by grace.” There is nothing else as important. Nothing else signals life change so strongly. Lisa asked Bill what they needed most from other people. Bill could have recited a laundry list of chores and projects that were waiting for drier weather, but he answered, “Prayer.”

I remembered that Bill and Carol’s life together has always illustrated two principles: faith and service. They trust God for their provision, and they use the blessings he pours out to pour out blessings to others.

In a sense, Bill and Carol navigate their lives by vectoring. They have a good idea where they are, and they have a firm knowledge of where they are going. They do not always know what lies between. Prayerfully they move on. Faith and sacrifice guide their choices because other routes lead to dead ends. It occurs to me that God calls us all to do the same: trust him, and share his love with others. Bill and Carol exhibit this lifestyle with kindness and commitment.

Lisa will take Claire to camp at Life Change for a week sometime this summer. They will not need Tomtom to guide them there. Nevertheless, I anticipate that Bill and Carol’s example of Christian faith and service will serve as a beacon to Claire, as it should to all of us.

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