…and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
I remember back in high school biology class (which, though admittedly quite a while back, would not be considered Ancient Times), my classmates and I discovered, while shirking actual learning, that our town website provided satellite imagery of every property within its borders. We looked wide-eyed at each other– “this is SO creepy”– as we entered each of our addresses in turn and gasped at the fuzzy birds-eye view displaying our cars, our walkways, our yards. It was fun but we were a little unsettled, too, even at age 17. It seems quaint now that I can see a recent street-level, high-resolution image of those same houses with just a few keystrokes.
Google Maps has bailed me out of travel disaster more times than I’d like to admit. It keeps track of my location, especially if I load maps ahead of time in anticipation of weak signal and lack of internet access, and I often use it in unfamiliar places to save time and feel safe.
Last week in Malta, Google outdid itself.
I’d decided to walk across Gozo to the port of Mgarr, a decent distance through a remote area that made me a bit nervous– lonely stray dogs followed and rubbed against me, a listless-looking man stared at me from his perch on the hood of a car in front of a dilapidated set of storage and processing sheds that whispered of homicide, trash and tarp fluttered in the wind– and though I was never truly worried I also felt conspicuously alone. So I was less-than-thrilled when the road dead-ended at Mgarr…ix-Xini. I’d followed the wrong Mgarr and was now stuck in a beautiful little inlet with sheer rock sides that was miles from my intended destination, and it seemed the only way out was back the way I’d come.
But Google Maps showed a line zig-zagging up out of the cove toward a more direct route. Looking around at the edges of the beach, I could make out no other road or official path… until I saw the stairs cut from the rock on the far side wall. Sure enough, I was able to climb my way out and onward along a footpath to the road.
Of course I was glad to have a solution so neatly presented to me, but I had that same creepy feeling I’d had looking at those blurry satellite pictures years ago. Google Maps could produce a path I hadn’t even noticed with my eyes not one hundred yards from me, an unsigned staircase cut in a wall of rock at a tiny beach. It was amazing.
Even so, I have to ask myself how being able to rely on technology so fully might affect the travel experience. Getting lost can suck, but it also requires you to look around, to stumble upon worthwhile things you wouldn’t have, to blaze your own trail, and to embrace spontaneity. Adventures are hard to map.