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Google Maps -- or any similar electronic GPS -- is a mixed blessing, says Cheryl Katz. On the one hand, it saves time by keeping us from meandering too far afield. But on the other hand, where's the fun in that? (BiblioArchives/ LibraryArchives/flickr)

I’m the first to admit that I, like just about everyone else I know, am addicted to technology. I rely on my iPhone for just about everything.

My use of e-mail and text messaging borders on the compulsive. I can express every thought at the exact moment that it occurs, articulated with a certain laissez-faire attitude toward spelling and grammar and with little time for reflection. Similarly, my phone gives answers to all my questions — legitimate or otherwise — at lightning speed.

My dad, who peppered all his conversations with platitudes (delivered with just enough gravitas to make my sister and me believe that he had invented them), would have said about all this technology, “It’s too good to be true.” And, with a few exceptions, he would have been right.

Our meandering took us past verdant rolling hills, grazing sheep, thatch-roofed houses and stone walls, through tiny villages and town centers… [to] places we never planned on going.

A few months after my now-husband, Jeffrey, and I started dating, long before the advent of smartphones, he invited me to join him on a trip to visit his parents, who were living in England at the time. His plan was that we would spend the summer using their house as a home base while we took days-long car trips through the countryside to see as many English country houses as possible — a dream for a young architect and his new girlfriend, a burgeoning decorator.

Jeffrey left for England a week ahead of me in order to orchestrate our house tour. When I arrived at his parents’ house in Leicester, I was greeted by all the things we would need for our trip — piles of pamphlets, oversized architecture books and a stack of road maps.

Our first excursion would last five days, with only pediments, period furniture and shepherd’s pie to distract us. In the bloom of our new romance, we would learn things about one another that only traveling together can teach. We both came to believe, as we do to this day, that being good travel companions forms the foundation of a solid relationship.

But this trip would test that theory. About an hour into it, Jeffrey, driver and tour organizer extraordinaire, realized that I could not read a map. Sixty minutes and many missed exits later, it was clear that I had failed at my one responsibility, to be an able co-pilot.

At best, my map reading skills were poor. But when I was riding in a car on the wrong side of the road, down lanes one car-width wide, past streets without signposts, sitting next to someone I was mad about, they were abysmal. The more I tried — folding and refolding that map a dozen times — the worse it got.

Though Jeffrey’s behavior was exemplary, I could sense his frustration. We rode in polite silence for what seemed an eternity, until finally he pulled over to the side of the road. Taking a red pencil out of his knapsack, he traced the route that I was to follow as he drove. Given my skills, even this was far from foolproof.

But somehow our meandering that day, and on subsequent days, took us past verdant rolling hills, grazing sheep, thatch-roofed houses and stone walls, through tiny villages and town centers, until, miraculously, we arrived at the formal gardens and grand houses that we had set out to find.

Over the years, on other trips, it continued that way. Mistakes and missed turns, lots of laughs, a few tears (most notably when I was so busy trying to read the map of the Hollywood Hills that I missed the homes of both Sandra Dee and Liberace) and my constant lament, “I think I might have overlooked something” — took us to places we never planned on going.

But those days are gone.

These days it’s a much more secure voice that directs Jeffrey, one that speaks in dulcet tones. Voice-activated Google Maps gets us to where we’re going, while I am free to sit in the passenger seat and pick up my email or text my colleagues at work, or get the answers to my most burning questions — “How old is Lena Dunham?” or “Where can I get the best brioche in Brooklyn?” And, if I’m having a hankering for a latte, she (is it ever a he?) lets me know that there’s a Starbucks 2.7 miles away.

Last month we were in Miami visiting Jeffrey’s father, who recently moved there.

When he asked us to run some errands for him — Best Buy, Publix, Target, Verizon and a computer repair shop — it was a bit of a relief to know that we could rely on our pocket-size navigator to get us where we needed to go.

There were no surprises, no detours, no U turns, and no pressure. But there was something much less fun about the perfunctory nature of it all. Who knows what we might have stumbled upon if we had lost our way?

As my own father might have said, “Don’t miss the forest for the trees.”

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Tags: Family, Relationships

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • LostLarry

    Hey, call me when you get a chance, i am lost and can’t find the place. And i am not stopping for directions.

  • Andrew

    I agree with the author’s sentiments, but while GPS does remove a lot of serendipity it adds a little back as well. When i got my first GPS i loved how easy it was to look for and find places that were near my route on long trips. These were places that i rarely would have looked for before i had a GPS.

  • http://twitter.com/FyjW Frances Y J Wheeler

    I think GPS also has the reverse effect. I am a lot more inclined to pursue alternative routes now that I have a way to get back on track if I become confused. It’s helped me learn about neighborhoods and smaller roads surrounding regular destinations.

  • Library Lil

    I can totally relate to this wonderful essay. I am also “map challenged” but what’s so terrible about getting lost once in awhile? Most of us live scheduled lives. You never know what treasures await you when you veer off the beaten path.

  • Cdawson65

    I do not use GPS not because I like the serendipity “flying blind” can create but because I really dislike the sense of primacy using GPS creates. Navigation aids like GPS always present the world with you, the user, in the center. I prefer to have a sense of the world as existing without me and I am merely moving through it. I like to look at a map before I go anywhere–maybe write down a few directions before I go. If I end up lost I like the challenge of thinking my way through the problem.

    http://c-dawson.blogspot.com/2013/01/to-gps-or-not-to-gps.html

  • Martha

    Cheryl Katz is so right– as we rely more and more on the convenience of our electronic “friends,” we seem to have lost some of the adventure along the way. I can remember my father who, until he died at age 96, read the Globe cover to cover –international news, car ads, help wanteds, engagements, and all. Although he had a desk top, he could never undersand why anyone would want to read the newspapper on-line. He used to argue that if you read the paper on-line, you read selectively — only those articles that you sought out — and that you missed the joy of learning so much more. Thank you, Cheryl Katz, for reminding us that when we we get lost on the road or in a newspaper, we find so much.
    (Coincidentally, however, I googled Lena Dunham’s age just 2 days ago!!! — I will save you the trouble — she’s 26)

  • Janet

    Another delightful essay by Cheryl Katz! I can so relate to her description of trying to be the good navigator when all who know me well would tell you, never follow Janet… my solution is to always turn right. (If you keep on turning, you’ll eventually find the route, right? What I like about Cheryl’s work is that she uses very few words to plant the reader directly into her experience, and once there, I can totally relate to her – and the humanness we all share.

  • Deb K

    A soulmate of “directionally challenged”, I relate to the pros of the getting lost experience. I have learned, however, that Google Maps without the lovely voice allows me to continue the u-turns and unexpected finds. For me, Google maps is map-reading skills in miniature with a myserious blue dot that seems to move randomly?!!

  • cstrandberg

    One of the amazing things about GPS is that it is changing our map reading skills!
    My young interns have a completely different concept of what a map “is” in its
    very essence. My maps are on paper in a glove box, while theirs are moving
    obejcts with a scope that is limited to what google thinks you should see.
    Pretty interesting to see the differences between the two!

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