Suddenly the voice prompt on our car’s navigation system interrupted our conversation with an unexpected alert, “Due to a road closure on your route, a new route has been calculated to reach your destination”. My wife and I just looked at each other in disbelief. This was our first experience with artificial intelligence, and we were impressed.
It was early May, 2019, and my wife and I were headed west on a road trip that would eventually lead us from our home in Minnesota to Yosemite National Park. As an outdoor photographer, Yosemite was at the top of my list. Thoughts of its stunning waterfalls, majestic cliffs, and lush valleys made me as giddy as a five-year-old on Christmas morning. Our plans called for six days in the park, and I had every one planned out, including photo locations and time of day.
The only possible nemesis in my carefully orchestrated plan was the weather. For the last couple weeks I had been checking the forecast more often than a day trader checks the market. At first it had been favorable, but the closer we got to our time in the park, the more it soured. Now, the day before we were to arrive, the forecast called for thick clouds and heavy rain for every day for the next seven, the only exception being the day of our arrival. I felt like Mike Tyson had just punched me in the gut. I knew springtime weather in the mountains can be volatile, but this seemed sinister, evil. Determined to salvage something from a photography standpoint, I calculated that if we got an early start from our overnight stay in Las Vegas, we might be able to get to Yosemite Valley in time for evening photos.
The next morning we were on the road before rush hour clogged the freeways. We were somewhere between Bakersfield and Fresno in central California when the navigation system alerted us to the road closure, and informed us of the new routing. Margaret instintively grabbed the Rand McNally road atlas, and began to follow along, trying to predict where the new route would take us. It kept us on Hwy 99 all the way to Modesto, before heading north and then east on Hwy 120. The road atlas confirmed Hwy 120 would take us directly to our vacation rental in Groveland. We were beginning to feel comfortable.
Tired after a long day of driving, and needing a break, I pulled into a rest area and we switched drivers. A few miles down the road my hope for a short nap was interrupted by another unexpected prompt from the navigation system.
“In one mile, turn left” it said.
I don’t remember the name of the road we were told to take, only that it didn't appear on our road atlas. We obediently complied, confident the navigation system was likely routing us around more road construction. The narrow paved road we were told to take led us deeper and deeper into the remote foothills of the Sierra’s in an area known as gold country. Discovery of gold in 1848 sparked the largest mass migration in U.S. history, with more than 300,000 pioneers heading west, birthing the term ’49ers’.
The further we traveled the more we found ourselves in a tangled mess of unmarked roads going every which direction like rabbit trails. The navigation system was going berserk, behaving like a hound dog chasing rabbits down those trails. Turn left. Turn right. If possible, make a legal u-turn. It felt like we were going in circles. We made so many turns there was no possible way we could retrace our steps if we had to. My wife’s bouncing knees told me she was growing more tense, and needed to use a bathroom soon.
The further we progressed, the more desolate the roads became. At one point there was grass growing through the asphalt, with only a single tire track to follow where some other wayward soul had succumbed to the same dilemma we found ourselves in. I had heard of ghost towns. But never ghost roads.
A friend told us later we were in an area now inhabited by x-military spooks and other people who don’t want to be discovered. He told us stories of people who had seen them sitting naked on their porches, holding AK-47's, waiting for the Apocalypse.
As the miles and minutes passed, we felt more and more helpless, knowing we were trusting and following a device that was leading us astray. Still, we were holding on to a slim glimmer of hope that we would crest a hill or round a curve and find a sign saying 'Junction 120’ ahead. But there was no sign.
Time was ticking away, and the sun was dropping lower in the western sky. Somewhere along the way I had given up all hope for evening photos. The final straw came when the navigation system led us to a dead-end, then instructed us to turn left, cross a cattle grate, and proceed on a private drive that disappeared over a hill to somewhere I didn’t care to find out about. I had had enough.
In a brief capricious moment, my thoughts turned to the manufacturer of our navigation system. Somewhere at Garmin’s headquarters in the back of their property, I envisioned a secret building with no windows and padded walls where dozens of programmers sit behind screens writing code. And at this very moment, one of them had an evil smirk on his face, tracking our progress.
We switched drivers again, and I began to formulate a new plan. The first thing I did was turn off the navigation system. Then we turned around and headed back in the direction we had come. My plan was to stay on this road until either we could flag down a car, unlikely since we had seen none, or find a home next to the road, where hopefully someone was out in the yard. The thought of cold knocking on a strangers door in an area that felt so uninviting was creepy, and I was not going to do it unless I had to.
Five miles turned into ten, and ten into twenty, before we finally saw a home next to the road. Our spirits lifted when we saw someone out in the yard. We pulled in. The homeowner’s property looked like a vehicle graveyard where tractors, trucks, and cars had randomly pulled into the yard, then expired. I resisted the urge to glance in any of the vehicles, afraid I would see a pair of skeletons still buckled in their seats, with the faint voice of a navigation system in the background, still giving instructions.
The homeowner eyed us warily as we slowly drove up the short driveway and coasted to a stop. It was obvious he was not used to, or wanted, company. I rolled down my window and apologetically asked for help.
“Sorry to bother you”, I said. "We are trying to get to Groveland. Our navigation system was trying to route us around some road construction, and somehow we ended up here.”
“Groveland?”, he said, as he removed his hat and scratched his head as he tried to think of a way to give us directions.
Just then a neighbor drove in on a 4-wheeler, and pulled up next to our car. He looked at his friend. “These folks are trying to get to Groveland and ended up here”.
“Groveland?" his friend replied incredulously. “Man, you really are lost”. He thought about it for awhile, then said, “You better get a piece of paper and write this down”.
Margaret quickly pulled out a tablet and began to scribble furiously as he explained the directions. He gave us turn by turn directions, all guided by landmarks; a big rock, a tall tree next to the road, an old abandoned truck. And so on.
We thanked them, then started to back out the way we drove in. As I was backing up I asked my wife if I should ask if she could use his bathroom.
“I’d rather wet my pants”, she replied.
I grinned, and we headed on down the road. The directions proved amazingly accurate. In just under an hour we crested a hill, and there it was, Hwy 120. And hallelujah, there just happened to be a convenience store right at the junction, with a bathroom.
As Margaret went inside, I looked at my watch. It was almost 6pm. We had lost a few hours driving aimlessly around the foothills. Still, sunset in the valley was just before 8pm. If we didn’t have any more setbacks, we might be able to get to the valley before dark.
Thirty minutes later we were in Groveland, quickly found our VRBO, dropped off some luggage, and headed for the park. We got to the valley just as the sun was dropping behind the tall granite cliffs. The lighting was magical, and I was able to capture some stunning images. Darkness came quickly as we exited the park and drove back toward Groveland. I felt incredibly thankful, that despite the road construction and getting lost, and an awful forecast for the days ahead, we had made it to the valley in time for some good photos.
We were exhausted when we got back to the vacation rental. It had been a long draining day, both physically and emotionally. Sleep came quickly as our heads hit the pillows. Suddenly, around 3am, something woke me. What was it? Was it thunder? Did I hear a noise outside? Or in the house? I listened intently for any further noises, but heard none. I knew I would not be able to get back to sleep unless I got up to check it out. I slid my legs over the side of the bed as I tried to get my bearings. The blackout curtains made it difficult to see, and I didn’t want to turn on a light and wake Margaret. I slowly shuffled my way across the room toward the large window facing the deck, my arms extended to avoid bumping into, or falling over, anything in my path. A few moments later I was at the wall and pealed back the curtain. For a moment I just stood there stunned, trying to process what I was seeing. I saw stars. Thousands of stars. I had expected clouds and rain. Suddenly the prospect of having another day in the park to take pictures lifted my spirits. I found my way back to the bed, but I didn’t sleep much.
For the next six days this process would repeat itself. Each day the forecast called for thick clouds and heavy rain. And each day, except for one brief afternoon thunderstorm, the weather was perfect, with unseasonably warm days and clear to partly cloudy skies. On the last day of our visit they even opened Glacier Point Road a month early, with access to Glacier Point Overlook, a stunning view 3000 feet above the valley. Glacier Point Road is usually blocked by winter snows until early June in a normal snow year, and this winter had seen above average snowfall.
In the days following our stay in Yosemite, I decided to check back on the weather, just curious. The weather that had been predicted during our stay had finally moved in, thick clouds and heavy rain. The higher elevations even saw heavy snow, forcing the park to close Glacier Point Road.
Some would say we had been incredibly fortunate. But I knew God had intervened. I just didn’t know why yet.