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There and Back Again?

Over at the American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead wrote an interesting piece on the value of getting lost, of actually enjoying the journey between points A and B and discovering a bit of the trip in between rather than being so focused on where we’re going. I can’t say I disagree. Actually, one of the most-used gifts I received when I finished my M.A. and came to New York was a stack of walking tours for different neighborhoods in the city. They point to the public transit that will take you to a certain neighborhood, describe the history and the spirit of the place, and point you to local landmarks that can be explored if you have maybe an hour or two to just wander around. Technically there’s a map and a list of places to go, but of course the publishers aren’t forcing you to do that.

My point starting all this was that I’m an adventurer and an explorer by nature. So I’m not averse to her basic point. But as with most technology, I don’t think the danger is so much the technology itself as it is how we use it. Let me start by quoting Ms. Olmstead’s concerns:

It is good to consider the effect GPS systems have had on our culture. They have greatly enhanced the ease of travel – the ability to get from point A to point B – but they also make it more difficult to “go somewhere ‘in-between,'” as Sturt and Nordstrom [MB: here] write. We journey, most often, on freeways that are disconnected from the social architectural fabric of passing communities. We are often too busy noting our estimated time of arrival and upcoming traffic patterns to enjoy passing landscapes. The GPS always promotes the most efficient route for drivers to take – but it doesn’t take note of scenic or historic routine. This is great when you’re in a rush, but can be potentially damaging for road trips, when we’re meant to see and savor, are disconnected from the social and architectural fabric of passing communities.

Here’s the thing. I’ve actually been on a road trip with a GPS. In a way of speaking I go on them every time I take one of my notecard days when I pluck another neighborhood out of the day and go explore Coney Island or SoHo or a certain bit of Williamsburg, and I’ve done it quite literally, both with the roadmaps and the actual electronic maps. And in both cases, the question that makes all the difference to my experience is: are you willing to say no? Those notecards list points of interest and give me a walking map where I can find them, but there’s a difference in hitting them like a checklist and using them as my starting point. Similarly with old-school maps and GPS alike: you can either let them dictate your trip, or your can let them guide it, be ready to fall back on it at need, but also be in charge of your own trip and be willing to take a detour.

That’s actually the really cool thing about GPS in particular, which I don’t think Ms. Olmstead really accounted for. It’s adaptive. I remember one particular tri up to Boston, not a road trip per se but my travel-companion and I were grad student so yay wanderlust!. We had stopped for gas and went the wrong direction out of the station, and the GPS started barking on us. But the way we went wasn’t back to the freeway but instead to a backroad and it looked interesting. We decided to turn it off and ended up having lunch at a lovely diner and chatting it up with people who lived in the area. Which is precisely the kind of in-between stop I think Ms. Olmstead is encouraging us to take. But the reason we felt free to take it was we knew the GPS would be there to get us out again when we needed to get going back toward Boston. We didn’t have to stay on the familiar path and didn’t have to know where we were going, and it was technology like GPS that let us do that. I don’t think we’d have dared or bothered if we were I know my own mini-adventures with those notecards probably would never have happened if I didn’t have the suggested itinerary and accompanying map to fall back on. I never would have gone beyond the neighborhoods I was more familiar with.

Ditto for that “estimated time of arrival” Ms. Olmstead warns us about. If you’re obsessively focusing on it, that’s one thing. But if you’re using this information to answer the question: do I have time to take this detour and still make it to my final destination on time, that’s quite another. Because those practical issues can matter in different situations, and that kind of information can either be a straightjacket or it can be a guardrail. I’m reminded of a psychological study I heard of ages ago (sorry, can’t find the reference :-S), where children on a fenced-in playground would go right up to the edge of the fence to play, whereas kids on a playground that wasn’t fenced in played much more close to the jungle gym. Knowing how far we can go safely lets us use all the space available to us, it’s empowering and freeing in its own way, particularly if we use it as a tool for making our own decisions rather than letting that information guide us.

Put more simply: knowing the anticipated arrival time doesn’t rule out adventures along the way. Sometimes it’s actually what makes them possible.

I found it quite interesting that, in making her case, Ms. Olmstead pointed to three stories: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Twain’s Huck Finn, but also Bilbo from The Hobbit. I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to any and all mention of Tolkien, so I’ll be honest, when she quoted “The Road Goes Ever On, I definitely felt my spidey-senses tingling a bit. Listen or read that poem and try not to be inspired to take the “new road or the secret-gate”; I’ve never been able to manage it.

But I’m not sure the story really helps Ms. Olmstead’s point, because neither Bilbo nor Frodo (who also recites the poem and goes on his own “there-and-back”) are engaging in side-trips. Both of them have the closest thing to GPS you’ll hope to find in Middle-earth. Bilbo’s chosen task is to be at a particular location far to the east at a very specific day and side-adventures like with the goblins in the Misty Mountains and with the Mirkwood Elves are treated very much (by Bilbo, if not by the author) as nuisances and dangers that must be navigated to get to our destination. With Frodo, the point is even more clear, I think: the company bemoans the loss of their guide, Gandalf, and Frodo and Sam are quite literally getting themselves turned around in circles until they find another guide who promises to show them how to get to their final destination. This is not a wandering focused on something other than the eventual destination, as with Huck or (I’m going to assume as I haven’t read it)

Now there are characters who take just-for-the-heck-of-it journeys. I thought immediately of Isengar Took, Bilbo’s uncle that “went off to sea” in his youth, and the many other Tooks that were enchanted to go off into the blue. Even Sam fits the bill at first, with his drive to go and see Elves, hardly part of the official itinerary. But with Bilbo and Frodo there’s a definite sense that these are not adventures of discovery or even just encountering the world for its own sake. Both hobbits want to get back home, but Fate seems to have other plans for them. Those in-between bits are probably the ones that have the biggest impact (indeed, Bilbo finds the Ring quite by accident in just one such moment), but I’d hardly hold them up as living or even wanting to live in those moments. If anything, the poem seems to be about the way the World seems to drag us to its own chosen destination, not the one we might have had in mind – but the destination, the place we’re being dragged off to, is still the important thing here.

Right, enough of me being a Tolkien nerd. My main point was that we definitely should experience those points along the way and not be so blinded by our five-year plans or the final destination we plug into our GPS. Speaking for myself, though, I’m not sure the GPS is really to blame – to paraphrase another bit of JRRT, there is in this technology no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself. Then let him beware!

One Comment

  • Posted July 11, 2014 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    Good posting. I’m on my second Garmin GPS, and I love it usually, but it has limitations and drawbacks. One time a couple of months ago it made me late to a Pirates game because I blindly followed its “detour” around rush hour traffic on the Interstate — right into the heart of rush hour traffic in Pittsburgh’s Dormont neighborhood. That’s a mistake I won’t make a second time.

    On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago, it took me down a back road on the way to a square dance in Thomas, WV. Supposedly the “fastest” way, but the rough and winding county road had me constantly losing time on the estimated arrival time. It was a nice scenic route, and one I *might* take to Thomas again — but not if I’m in a hurry. (Thankfully, I did get to my hotel to check in at a reasonable time, and still had time to have dinner, and make it to the dance right when they were starting.)

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