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Most people have a GPS unit in their car nowadays, but few use it for more than plotting the most direct route to a destination.
This often means taking the largest roads and highways — not the ones that pass the best sights, small towns and other gems that make traveling so much fun.
The Garmin company offers a free software program called BaseCamp to satisfy the wanderer. Garmin GPS owners download the program onto their home computer to plot custom routes. With the purchase of upgraded map software, secondary roads and even dirt and fire roads can be incorporated into journeys.
Navigating a custom route is easy. Choose a starting point, map out a route using the mouse, name it and load it onto your GPS unit via a USB connection. Once on the road, cue up the custom route and let the GPS do the rest.
A small warning here: Back roads are always changing. They can be flooded, closed, rerouted or under construction. Always check for map update options to get the most recent data on your GPS device.
On a recent motorcycle ride to Gettysburg, Pa., I plotted a route on my GPS that never took me off two-lane roads and even put me on a few dirt paths. Instead of taking Route 340 North, the standard on my GPS, I took Route 17 North through Middletown, Md., where I found the Main Cup coffee shop (on Main Street, of course).
As it turns out, the Main Cup’s name derives from the building’s history, not its location. C.F. Main began making and selling ice cream there more than 100 years ago.
According to the shop’s website, “Main’s Ice Cream and Butcher Shop became a Maryland institution as the business grew regionally. Presidents and state officials were known to stop at Main’s on their way to Shangri-La, now known as Camp David. Ice cream was last churned here in 1969 and the Main family subsequently sold the factory.”
Somehow, I don’t think I would have learned all that if I had taken the route recommended by the GPS unit.
I then overrode the GPS unit, which favored Route 15 North, and opted for a series of side roads such as Foxville Deerfield Road, Bullfrog Road, Hampton Valley Road and Pumping Station Road.
By taking the back roads, I passed the ruins of the Ebenezer Church near Emmitsburg, Md., and Sachs Covered Bridge in Adams County, Pa. The 100-foot, town truss bridge spanning Marsh Creek wasn’t on my printed book map or in my GPS program. It is closed to vehicular traffic, so I guess it just doesn’t get noted by mapping companies. I only found it because I took the time to drive the back roads.
When I compared my custom route against the main roads suggested by the GPS unit, the time difference was less than an hour. Of course, the discoveries I made along my path tempted me into pulling over and lingering, but isn’t that the point?
I also determined that the back roads felt safer because they forced me to slow down — not because it was pouring rain but because the area was so pretty and there was so much to see.
So this fall, before you head out the door for a day or weekend trip, take a moment to plot out a custom route. Then slow down and take the roads less traveled.