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Technology, travel and near tragedy

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Greg Peck
November 7, 2013

Those of you who read the story in Wednesday's Gazette about the Wisconsin couple whose car got stuck on a closed road, Beartooth Pass near Cody, Wyo., probably consider these two fools and can't see yourselves in such a position.

That might not be fair, however. The couple were leaving Yellowstone National Park on Oct. 28 and dialed in their next hotel stop on their global positioning system device, which took them down that road. Mark and Kristine Wathke missed the sign that said the road was closed for the season. About 35 miles later, they started to see snow, then hit drifts before they decided to turn around. Then, their Kia got stuck.

Before it got dark, Mark walked 30 minutes back down the road but returned when he found no help. By Oct. 30, the couple figured family and friends would realize they were missing and alert rescuers. The Wathkes had just gotten some groceries, but those were running out and by last Saturday night, Nov. 2, they felt hopeless. They figured they'd freeze together in their car and wrote goodbye notes and left cellphone messages for their families.

Fortunately, a rancher who heard they were missing decided to venture down that closed road Monday on his snowmobile. He eventually found and rescued them.

My wife, Cheryl, and I rely on our GPS device whenever we travel these days and did so last month in New England's mountain country. “Ms. Garmin,” as we call her, is usually reliable. She's much easier to use than trying to figure out the best route from Point A to Point B on a map. You plug in the next destination and follow her verbal guidance.

The story of the Wathkes reminded me of the time Cheryl and I took a small rental car up Mt. Hood in Oregon one snowy morning a few years ago. We saw other traffic, so I wasn't too concerned about being in wilderness, and little snow was sticking to the pavement. Still, one slick curve could have proven hazardous. Our destination was famous Timberline Lodge, and by the time we made it, several inches of snow blanketed the parking lot. We took a quick tour, skipped our planned breakfast and headed back out.

“Ms. Garmin” did steer us wrong last month in one small community in Maine, however. And last year while leaving San Francisco and crossing the miles-long Bay Bridge, she suggested: “In point four miles, turn left on County A.”

“Not, unless, you're ready for a chilly swim,” I told Cheryl.

I visited Yellowstone briefly as a teenager, but Cheryl has never been there and would like to see it. Our lessons with our GPS device and the experience of the Wathkes show that while technology can ease such trips and other aspects of life, it still can't always replace common sense. When traveling, it pays to stay alert to construction zones and other local conditions that can catch techno-gadgets unaware. Not doing so could cost you your life.

I'm just glad the Wathkes lived to tell their harrowing tale.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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