I may not be old enough to remember the completion of the US Interstate system (1980), but I’m at least old enough to remember what a paper map looks like.
I’ve felt the frustration of trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube of its original folds, and have engaged in the heated front seat argument that inevitably occurs when you realize the black line that crosses the Interstate doesn’t necessarily mean it actually connects with the Interstate.
On my recent 3,600 mile “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights” road trip, however, I never got lost once. No wrong turns, no hopelessly unfolded maps, just a bouncing blue ball embedded in the GPS of my smartphone on a little application commonly known as Google Maps.
This, many would argue, is a good thing. You get places faster, there are no front seat arguments, and the unfathomably smart little device will lead you directly to the gates of your hotel, National Park, or even the nearest coffee shop. From this perspective, Google Maps is the best thing to ever happen to the road trip.
If it’s even possible to be 27 years old and referred to as “old-school”, however, I have to say that I respectfully disagree. In my humble, perennially making U-turns opinion, Google Maps has actually ruined the art of the road trip, and I feel compelled to tell you why.
In a thoughtful effort to get you to your destination as quickly as possible, the shiny purple line overlaid on the Google Map points you from A to B on what it calculates to be the fastest route. More times than not, this leads you directly to the nearest Interstate.
As the late Charles Kuralt once stated in his long-running CBS series, On The Road, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. From the Interstate, America is all steel guardrails and plastic signs, and every place looks and feels and sounds and smells like every other place.”Part of the joy of the road trip–the true American road trip such as Gadling blogger Paul Brady discovered in his Traveling the American Road series–is not in getting from here to there in the speediest possible fashion, but rather in meandering amongst the back roads that connect village with village and neighbor with neighbor. Though 21% of America’s traffic travels along the Interstate system, it still only comprises 1% of America’s road network. The other 99% is where you will find the true American spirit and scenery, yet the purple line on my smartphone is telling me to pass it by.
Furthermore, getting lost is an intrinsic element of the road trip that Google Maps has eliminated. There is something to be said about not knowing what lies around the next bend, or in happening upon a township, a restaurant, or a scenic viewpoint that you had no plans of originally visiting. Maybe a person you speak with when you stop to ask for directions turns you on to a landmark or a festival that ends up being the best part of your trip. With the bouncing blue ball of precision, however, there are no longer any amicable strangers; there will be no festivals.
In a weird way, getting lost is supposed to happen. In our ever-morphing personal scripts and story lines, it is the unexpected encounters and unforeseen turns of event that add the toppings to the vanilla of our lives. As the ancient Greek philosopher Hericlitus once mused, “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.” Or, for that matter, by GPS.
Lastly, when you’re eyes are constantly on the bouncing blue ball on your smartphone screen in anticipation of the next turn, you’re not even seeing what you originally set out to see, which of course are the communities which are suddenly passing you by. Here is a sample conversation of a Google navigator with eyes firmly glued to a smartphone:
“Ok, turn left in .2 miles…it’s going to fork to the right…you should be passing the Home Depot riiiiiiiiiiiight….now.”
“That was a nice town wasn’t it?”
“I don’t know. What did it look like?”
Though I am as guilty as the rest for relying on Google to get me where I need to go, I hope that we as travelers aren’t sacrificing the wind-in-your-hair freedom of adventure for a calculated algorithm of geographic efficiency. Robert Frost just doesn’t ring as true had he quipped “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one Google told me to!”
While many may not agree, I am fearful that as technology revolutionizes the travel industry, the greatest casualty will be those roads not taken.