The Magic of GPS Meets the Mysteries of the Vineyard

“Can you give me the address of the Vineyard Playhouse?”

“Oh, just drive up Main Street, turn left onto Church–”

“No, please don’t give me the directions. Just give me the street address.”

“But it’s really easy to find. All you have to do is–”

“No, no, no! All I want is the address.”

All this Vineyard visitor really wanted was another opportunity to play with his new toy – his global positioning system. With the mere input of the town, street, and building number of his destination, his magical GPS device can precisely guide him via satellite from Point A to Point B, sparing him the sound of those awful words – honey, let’s ask for directions – for the rest of his motoring life. Three years ago, just a handful of happy GPS-ophiles approached my hotel concierge desk in search of Island addresses. Within a couple of years, they became a critical mass, wanting street addresses for lighthouses and beaches, for goodness’ sake.

They find out quickly they’re not in Kansas anymore. Like cell phones, town government, and dry-cleaning service, GPS works differently here. Many Island addresses boil down to colloquialisms – “Five Corners,” “at the harbor,” “near the Cliffs,” “at the Triangle.” Try keying “the right fork” into your toy. Granted, every mapped Island property, no matter how quaint, has a legal street address, but by the time you call, say, the Square Rigger Restaurant in Edgartown and find someone on duty who actually knows what the address is, you could have asked for the directions and been there already. Incidentally, the legal address of the Square Rigger is 225 State Road. (Even Edgartonians have no idea there’s a State Road in Edgartown.)

Glitches happen. Your next left turn may appear on screen to be miles away, but it’s suddenly...right here! GPS satellites will expertly guide you to Dunes Road in Katama, but when you get there, the map on your screen may inexplicably leap up-Island. And do you think for one second that GPS recognizes every last narrow dirt path that passes for a road on Martha’s Vineyard?

The surprising answer is a qualified yes. Martina Mastromonaco, coordinator of Tri-Town Ambulance, describes herself as the GPS poster child. “I was the most consistently lost EMT on the Island until I bought one,” she says. After testing it to her satisfaction in her own car, she bought one for every ambulance in the Tri-Town pool, which serves up-Island communities. “No one has gotten lost on an ambulance run since.”

This being the Vineyard, neither UPS nor FedEx is officially GPS-enabled here yet, but one up-Island FedEx driver reportedly uses his personal GPS with great success to locate little streets that don’t have street signs. Up-Island rent-a-cops from off-Island rely on it too. Now if only GPS could help them with houses that still bear numbers made obsolete in the mid-1990s by the enhanced 911 system...but that’s a subject for a whole other article.

Recognizing every little road isn’t always a good thing. The GPS route from the center of West Tisbury to the airport leads down a restricted fire lane. The satellites also detect the Island’s ancient ways, including the impassable ones, which means a command to make the next turn could send a hapless motorist down a bridle path.

The bottom line is, Island knowledge is key. “GPS tries to send you the shortest way to where you’re going, but that’s not always the best way,” says Martina. “And sometimes what they tell you is the shortest way really isn’t.”

The West Tisbury Police Department owns one GPS unit, which works “o...kay...,” says officer Sean Slavin with utmost pause. “Most of us don’t bother to use it,” he adds with a chuckle.

Cabbies apparently don’t bother either. “I don’t know any drivers who use it,” says a shrugging Anthony Esposito, a young Vineyard native who drives for Atlantic Cab. “We really don’t need it. Almost everyone you pick up is going to the main towns, and if they’re going out of town, most of them know exactly where they’re going.” For visitors and brand new drivers who haven’t a clue, the cab companies’ in-the-know radio dispatchers are the saving grace.

Island knowledge may be key, but that doesn’t help the first-time visitor arriving on the last ferry late at night, having to find an unfamiliar rental home on a meandering, unlit, unmarked road through the woods. At times like this, GPS is a godsend. In the light of day, however, it’s still a small joy to behold a young-at-heart couple in a shiny rent-a-Jeep poring over one of those big, cartoonish maps spread out over their laps. They (she) might ask a passerby for directions. And for a recommendation for a clam shack. A friendly chat may ensue. Then the couple may take off happily in the wrong direction. But hey, it’s an island. How lost can they get? Let the Vineyard adventure begin.