I had an interview in upstate Massachusetts this weekend. Two-and-a-half hours by car each way — not exactly an epic road trip. There aren’t many great things about growing up in the Midwest, but the sense of scale you acquire by your teenage years is certainly one of them: anything under four hours is a brief interstate jaunt. By comparison, going just about anywhere in New England feels like crossing the street to borrow some sugar.
I was being put up by my interviewer, so I couldn’t bring any friends for company or navigation. Zipcars don’t have GPS, and I don’t have a smart phone. Instead, I printed off a dozen pages of Google maps, studied the exits and memorized a few tricky transitions that were hard to follow on paper. The trip up was uneventful, but on the ride home I missed an exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike. No big deal, I figured — I’ll just take the next one, turn around, and get back on the Pike.
Not quite. This turned out to be harder than expected; exits are few and far between on the Pike, and I would need to hit the tolls three more times to get back on at the right place. I knew if I went as far as Springfield I could get on 91 and ride it back to New Haven. In the meantime, however, I had no maps and no directions. But I was in no rush, either. Getting lost is supposed to be exciting. You leave the plotted course and find your own way. Introspection ensues — even an epiphany or two if you’re lucky. Once the initial discomfort of not knowing where you are recedes, you’re supposed to discover all manner of interesting landmarks on your not-too-hurried journey back home.
Except try as I could, I couldn’t get very lost. Nothing was ever far from the highway, and few turns were ever unmarked or unsigned. I would have appreciated this on the first leg of my journey, when I actually had to get somewhere on time, but as I gave up and took the Pike predictably towards Springfield, I realized that our ability to get lost — really, truly, compass-spinningly lost — is a quickly disappearing luxury. Ten percent of the 220 million cars in the U.S. currently have some form of GPS, and that number is skyrocketing as the cost of such systems comes down. In Europe, the percentage is closer to 20. Four out of every five cell phones will have integrated GPS by the end of 2011.
Is there a downside to knowing exactly where you are all the time? It sure is useful, and next time I get lost while skiing or climbing, I won’t mind the rescue teams using GPS to find me. But there’s something a bit suspect about being able to drive from point A to point B without ever processing where you’re actually going. And even if you leave the TomTom at home, as I did, the ease of Google Maps or Mapquest ensures preparation for any trip is minimal at best. Once on the road, it’s almost impossible to breach the gravitational pull of the closest highway, especially in a region as compact as New England. Even the White Mountains, which can feel downright alien in places, are only three hours from Boston.
GPS and mass signage are a bit like spell-check for our large-scale spatial awareness. Most of the time, when you’re not trying to get lost, they are welcome supplements. But by relying on them, we seem to be losing both a skill and an opportunity our less directionally-coddled ancestors once enjoyed. One of the best parts of backcountry hiking is choosing a route and deciphering it along the way, often in areas that may not have been field-checked in decades. Getting lost and finding your way back is part of the experience. When you get where you’re trying to go, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something. When I arrived back in New Haven, I just recycled my ream of Google maps. When I travel by GPS, it’s even worse — almost like cheating. What will happen in 50 years, when we’re all so used to navigating by GPS we’re paralyzed without it — even on routes we drive every day?
“Finding your way,” in the metaphorical sense, is generally a good thing. It is in the physical world as well. I don’t advocate turning off your iPhone when you’re driving to an interview, but next time you have a few hours to spare, try navigating by roadmap, or go chartless altogether. You’ll notice more along the way.
Riley Scripps Ford is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.