In the early days of the deep underground science laboratory that once was Homestake Gold Mine, a wicked-smart physicist used GPS as an example when he tried to explain to me the importance of pursuing knowledge for its own sake.
The guy really tried to break down the world of atomic particles and dark matter and invisible things called neutrinos that most of us wouldn't recognize if they passed through us at the speed of light. The occasion was a gathering of world-class scientists to talk about the sorts of experiments the mine-turned-research lab might host. The paper assigned me to cover it and write stories, one of several times in my reporting life that I was directed to write in a clear, informative manner on things I knew nothing about. That was the world of a general-assignment reporter.
The physicist I interviewed made the point that, quite often, pure research turns into products or processes with practical applications. He said some early work in the nation's space program was used by the Defense Department to develop the Global Positioning System and satellites that today help prevent people like me from becoming hopelessly lost in big cities. In my case, it helps keep me from becoming hopelessly lost in modest-sized but unfamiliar cities, too, places like Denver and Minneapolis and St. Cloud.
I could have relied on the direction app in Nancy's car during an Easter weekend visit in St. Cloud, where one of our granddaughters attended college. Instead, I'll confess, I just called upon on our son-in-law to do the driving. He and our daughter spent quite a bit of time in the college town during their daughter's four years. He knew his way around. I sat back and let him decide how we were getting to various destinations, including a quick trip into Minneapolis for a play. We got there and back, so he knew his stuff, although he did rely on the direction app a couple of times.
In unfamiliar cities, I much prefer someone else to do the driving. In Denver, whenever possible I let our son drive. He knows where he's going, and when he doesn't, he knows how to quickly and efficiently use the GPS feature to point the way. I can kick back and know we'll get to our destination. It's like hiring an Uber driver, except that we don't pay our son, and he provides complimentary meals and lodging in addition to transportation.
The morning we left St. Cloud, Nancy and I agreed to roll out early enough to drive over and pick up our granddaughter for work. From the motel, the trip to her house involved a total of three turns. I knew one came at the Highway 23 intersection, the next at a Super America station and the third at a stop sign across from a city park. The trip to her office was just a reverse back to 23 and then west until two stop lights past that burger place. Pretty simple, right? Who needs GPS or a son-in-law? I got this one.
Except I didn't. I turned an intersection before Highway 23, though, and drove a panicked half a mile before finding a street that got me back on course. And I missed the burger-joint turn and fretted for six blocks until I found another street that got our granddaughter to work on time.
I guess I should have set a GPS heading as back-up. I usually prefer navigating by landmarks, though. That's how my dad taught me when I was young.
"Take the second left after the two cottonwood trees that lean over the road. After about half a mile, you'll top a hill and see three steel grain bins. There's a dirt road on the right maybe 500 yards past that. Follow it for a couple of miles and you should see a barn. The house is just 40 rods or so from there, down in a little valley. If you run into a dead end before you see the grain bins, you took the first left instead of the second.''
Now, that right there is how to tell someone where to go.