Once upon a time, we traveled by map. In the United States, the map, whether it be a Conquistador sketch, a Rand McNally atlas or a foldout picked up at a Union 76 station, the sort you never fold the same way twice, is holy.
Maps are the only way we know our country is a country, a unified thing instead of a series of fields, forests and cities that go forever. Maps are mystery. You cannot look at the names of the towns and ranges without imagining yourself absorbed in experience — the jagged line of the Sawtooths, the peak of which you know is approached by roads lined with motor courts, or the vein of California’s Highway 1. Along that road, I see myself visiting San Simeon to see where William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies entertained Charlie Chaplin, or that fingernail of coast where William Finnegan still waits for the wave that will carry him to God. An hour with an atlas just makes me want to go.
I have welcomed, used and even relied on GPS, knowing it’s changed the nature of the map and my beloved road trip. It’s harder to get lost, more difficult to look out the window and feel scared. In fact, you do not have to do much thinking at all — just hang onto the wheel and let your mind drift, knowing the machine will do the anticipating and worrying, knowing too that any wrong turn, even one that takes you along a clover leaf and onto a strange, swift-moving highway, can be righted by the algorithm.
Traveling with GPS has changed the way I look at life. In such a world, there is no mistake recalculation can’t fix. You failed out of college? No worries. Recalculating. Only the final destination remains the same, the rest is improvisation, flux. GPS has been a salve for my emotional life. And yet, I miss the old road trip and the way it could make you feel lost between here and the rest of your life. With a map you believed the world was large and the car was small and every possibility was open. With GPS you know when you will leave and when you will arrive and what will happen along the way. Or you believe you do, which is even worse.
Perhaps people still plot road trips in the way my friends and I did in the 1980s, but I doubt it. We used to game everything out beforehand, laying in supplies in the manner of the ancient explorers. Music, food, places to stop: Everything had to be pre-assembled via mixtape, ballpoint pen and map. Entire books were dedicated to the process, a genre made obsolete by technology. It’s a tradition that goes back to the earliest American travel journals, like “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” or Francis Parkman’s “The Oregon Trail,” reports from trappers and surveyors determined to show people what it’s like out there.