Two college students playing in an out-of-town hockey tournament went out to eat with their parents after a late game, but the restaurant they picked had just closed its kitchen.

"There's another place just a few blocks away," the hostess said helpfully. "Take a left out of the parking lot, go two blocks, turn right and go one block."

The parents and the players retreated to their separate cars. When the players sat in the parking lot for a couple of minutes without moving, one of the parents walked over to see if there was a problem with the car.

"Not at all," they said. "We're just programming the directions into the GPS.' "

Is that where we've ended up, with a younger generation that can't go three blocks without being told by a electronic voice where to turn?

There was a time not long ago -- at least, in parents' perspective -- when going on a family vacation meant bringing along a road map on which the passengers could plot the journey's progress.

But the public's embrace of the Global Positioning System, a satellite-driven navigation process originally created for the military, is in danger of turning map-reading into a lost art.

The Boy Scouts of America is determined not to let that happen. All second-class scouts -- that's an indication of their rank, not their status -- are required to learn how to use a compass and a map, said Kent York, the communications director for the Northern Star Council serving the Twin Cities.

When you mention a GPS, most people think of the devices in cars, but there are personal systems that hikers can use in the woods. There are no roads for them to direct users on, however.

"A GPS is great for telling you how to get from one place to another," York said. "I drive a lot for my job, and I have one in my car that I use all the time. But when you're out in the wild, they're not going to tell you that you're hiking straight towards a canyon."

The Boy Scouts are not anti-GPS. On the contrary, they offer courses on incorporating a personal GPS with traditional map-and-compass navigation.

"A GPS is wonderful because it will give you your exact longitude and latitude," said Travis Sutten, a scout camping director who spends his summers teaching wilderness skills. "Once you have that information, you can plot your location on a map that you orient with your compass."

At Latitudes Map & Travel Store in St. Louis Park, owner Terry Kochaver isn't worried that maps are going the way of the dinosaur, dodo bird and Vikings' playoff hopes.

"A GPS is fine for getting around town, but it's limited in what it can do," he said. "It can't tell you about the area that's around you. If you scroll back far enough for your GPS to show you the state of Minnesota, for instance, there's no detail left. A lot of people like having that overview."

AAA reports the same reaction among its members.

"Many of the people who come in have a GPS but also want a map or a Triptik," said Jennifer Bremley at the St. Louis Park headquarters.

"It's a combination of high tech and low tech," she said. "The GPS is nice for telling you how far it is to the nearest gas station, for instance, but the feedback we get is that a lot of people still enjoy tracking the trip" on a printed map.

The companies that make GPS devices aren't denying that they might dull the senses a bit, but they're confident that the effect is temporary.

By human nature, we tend to take the easy way out, which in this case means letting a computer chip steer for us.

Should that no longer be available, mankind likely wouldn't end up wandering aimlessly for eternity -- just until we found a Boy Scout.

"I admit that using a GPS has hurt my sense of direction," said Jessica Myers, media relations manager at GPS giant Garmin. "It's just part of the effect of technology making things easier and more convenient."

When it comes to lost arts, there is one part of map-reading that even the experts can't help with much: Getting a paper road map to fold back up into some semblance of what you started with.

"The only advice I can offer is to try to follow the creases," Bremley said.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392