That is no longer the question.
After making our way across North America without the use of GPS (and sometimes without a map or directions) I have turned the stress of navigation over to Google and Garmin. You see, worrying about what we were missing wasn’t the only burden of route-planning that was proving too heavy to bear. It was also the challenge of plotting–and following–an enjoyable route. The UK, as I was quick to realize, was not like the USA or Canada. The shear number of roads, paths, trails, and carriageways that don’t appear on even the largest scale national maps was surprising. And even if I did buy a new county map every other day, the miles of roads that appear to go unnamed and unsigned would still slow our progress to a crawl. The day would be spent stopping at every crossroads to check the map and compass, oftentimes unsure where it was we actually were. With the exception of signed B-roads in Scotland, we were often just following the compass and hoping for the best.
When I said I quickly plotted a course out of Edinburgh to the Lake District, I actually did so using Google Maps and sent the track–a breadcrumb trail of GPS data–to my non-mapping Garmin Edge 305, the very same bike computer that I’d been using since 2007*. The resulting ride was so superior to any route I had tried to plan, that I was instantly convinced this was the way to go. As an experiment, I handed Google my complete trust. We pedaled our way from our airport hotel into the city along a beautiful canal, through Edinburgh University, and then south out of town across Midlothian and into the Borders. We rode on narrow one-lane roads that seldom saw any traffic. We followed the digital grayscale line on my outdated piece of technology as it bent left and right and directed us onto faint singletrack trails, paved bike paths, and straight to the campground that I had right-click-directions-to’d. For three days we enjoyed a glorious, stress-free ride on quiet roads as we made our way to the Yorkshire Dales. Then, from the house of our WarmShowers’ hosts, I plotted a route along the canals skirting the periphery of Manchester, Birmingham, and other cities I sought to avoid. And I continued using it right into the heart of Stratford-Upon-Avon where we parked our bikes beside Shakespeare’s birthplace and decided then and there that this is how we will navigate through Europe. To abuse the Bard’s language a second time in a single post is indefensible, but here goes: We knew where we were, but cared not how we got there. What? You thought I was going to quote Yorick?
I didn’t have to stop at every intersection and consult the map and compass. I didn’t have to curse the lack of street signs or stop and ask for directions, or buy a new extra-large scale map every day. I could just ride. I could just enjoy the view, note the scenery, and let my mind wander.
Of course, using the outdated Garmin Edge 305 does have its limitations. For starters, there is no basemap. I have merely the shape of a line to follow. And sometimes that line can be particularly confusing. More than once we stood on the side of the road and wondered where it was actually pointing to, only to realize over there, in the corner behind that garage, lies the entrance to a bike path. Only a local would have known. And though it serves as a wonderful navigator through the UK’s myriad roundabouts, it’s inability to properly warm me of an upcoming turn occasionally has us slamming the brakes on a descent, only to head back up the hill and turn onto a low-angle road or path I didn’t first see.
The Garmin is only half the solution. The other half is Google Maps. And I must admit that I have been incredibly impressed with its ability to plot a bike-friendly route for us when asked. No, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t distinguish between on-road and off-road, and it has been known to lead us onto some very muddy bridle trails, but if given the choice between sticking to high-traffic roads that appear on national maps and faint muddy trails, I’ll take the latter every single time. After all, going off-road is the reason I built up the Fargos. And though I know many will suggest all manner of other websites from RideWithGPS to BikeRouteToaster to MapMyRide to Strava, my workflow already has me using Google for researching camping locations, attractions, shops, and all manner of other things. After all, this isn’t about going for a bike ride as much as it is about living a life in constant motion. So, for those who are really curious, I send the URL for my Google directions to this page at GPS Visualizer which converts it to a GPX file. I then import it to GPSies, save it in my profile for later reference, and export it as a Garmin Course TCX file straight to my device. It was easier when Google allowed you to export directions as a KML file from Google Maps, but GPS Visualizer’s conversion is quick and painless.
I suspect when we finally reach Central Asia (or southern Morocco for that matter) and the number of roads and trails diminishes to just a handful of choices (like riding across Montana or Ontario) then we’ll be able to rely entirely on maps. But for now this is how I’ll be handling navigation. It’s been two weeks since the switch to this method and life on the foreign road has gotten much, much more enjoyable.
*Not exactly. The one I had since 2007 fell off a table three times in a span of ten minutes in Ely, MN, effectively killing the mode button and freezing it on the data screen that was last visible. I can hear parts rattling around inside when I shake it. I bought a used replacement from somebody in China on Ebay during our month off in July and though its battery seems to drain faster than mine did, it is working well. I’ll finally upgrade to one of the newer models if/when this one should perish.
Special Thanks: Tremendous thanks to our WarmShowers hosts Sylvie and Ben (aka “Frogs on Bents“) for welcoming us into their house for two nights in Warwick, for sharing their tickets to Warwick Castle with us, and for allowing us to eat and play and relax with them and their children. We were also extremely fortunate to spend three nights south of London with a couple we met on the QM2. Carolyn and Kevin opened their home to us, stuffed us with food, and made it oh-so-easy for us to use their house as a home base for exploring London. Carolyn’s mother Liz, who we also met on the QM2 and lives next door, was also keen to shower us in generosity. We’ll be leaving the UK with new friends, including Emily Chappell (who also generously hosted us for a fun night in London), great memories, and an even greater sense of what it means to be generous and kind.