I Followed Google Maps Navigation And Almost Died In The Rockies

June 21, 2011

An actual sign found along Oh My God Road

Here’s a story of how I discovered, painfully, that technology has its limits. It’s a reminder that when you lose cell service in the mountains, Google Maps Navigation will also lose its connection. And like a stubborn guy at the wheel, the Google navigation system won’t admit it’s lost until you’re really, really lost.

Over Memorial Day weekend, a group of friends and I headed out to Colorado to visit two college friends. Our time in Colorado was split between Denver and the mountains, spending the first two days exploring the city and the last two days camping near Central City. As a fun bonus to the camping portion of our trip, we made a reservation to go white water rafting in nearby Idaho Springs. We thought that white water rafting would be the fun, adrenaline filled highlight of our trip. For the four women in our group, myself included, that would not be the case.

Before I get into the navigation disaster, let me set the scene by describing to you the route we took to get from the campsite to the rafting drop-off. The route was comprised mainly of  a nine-mile stretch of Virginia Canyon Road which connects Central City to Idaho Springs, which we would later learn from our rafting guide is known to locals as “Oh My God Road.”

Remembering the smooth interstate roads that we took to get to the campsite from Denver, I offered to drive from the campsite to Idaho Springs. I grabbed the keys to my friend’s Honda Civic, my girlfriends hopped in with me and we followed the boys’ car. Fast forward ten minutes and I’m realizing the true name of the road, chanting “ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,” with my friends whispering the same mantra behind me.

Oh My God Road gets its name from being a two-way road that is only about a car and three quarters wide, graveled, with no guard rails and washed out shoulders. Not only are there no guard rails, a daring glance down reveals incredibly steep cliffs.

Fast forward a half-hour later, my shoulders are tense, I’m sweaty and I’m shouting expletives, but we survived one of Colorado’s scariest roads. The following white water rafting experience was exciting enough (three of our friends were tossed off the raft into a rapid), and the last thing that the ladies and I wanted to go was take on Oh My God Road again.

My friend’s boyfriend understood, said that we could take I-70 back to the campsite and we hopped into our gender segregated cars. Again, stupidly, I took the keys, started the engine and asked my Denverite friend where to go. In what would become an ill-fated move, she punched the campsite address into her phone and Google Maps said I-70. Off we were.

What happened over the next two hours is not something I’m proud of. We blindly followed Google Maps directions up into the mountains, not thinking twice when the road turned to gravel (we had just survived Oh My God Road), and only pausing for a moment to laugh when the two-lane gravel road ended and turned into a one-lane path for 4x4s (as we would later realize). It was probably two miles down that road that I heard a gasp from the backseat: Google Navigation said “rerouting” and was spinning in circles. We had lost cell service and Google Maps had been telling us to turn randomly, never admitting that it was lost until we were on a one-lane 4×4 path, bottoming out on boulders, in the middle of the Rockies.

This is when Google told us to turn from a two-lane gravel road (on the left) to a one-lane path for 4x4s (on the right). We followed the 4x4 path becausely our GPS said the campsite was only one mile down this "road."

To make matters worse, the sun was setting, none of us had cell service, the gas light was on and we had passed only one home (The Hills Have Eyes, anyone?) many miles back. After pushing that Honda Civic to its limits, navigating an Austin Powers-style turnaround and one clutch decision at a fork in the road, we made our way out of the mountain an hour later. It’s hard to describe, but I have never felt fear like that before. My frequently flying friend said that it made extreme turbulence seem like a joke.

I thought we were an extreme case, but it appears that many people across the country blindly follow navigation directions, trusting the computer instead of their intuition. Last May, Google Maps’ walking directions instructed a woman to walk along a very busy highway with no pedestrian walkway. She followed the directions exactly and was hit by a car in the process. In Washington, convention-goers used a GPS system to navigate back to their hotel at midnight and were led down a boat ramp into a body of water.  A boat ramp, people! It even happens to tech gurus like Michael Gray, who was lucky enough to see a hand-written sign warning GPS users that this was not the right road before continuing too far down the wrong path.

I learned my lesson the hard way and might even consider purchasing a paper map for my next road-trip (!). Do any of you use a paper map or have any navigation horror stories?