Part 5 is here.
We moved through the miles slowly some days and quickly during others. We met old friends from summer camp, distant relatives, great aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers. We snapped at each other, listened to audiobooks, and ate sunflower seeds. We visited our future college campuses and tried peach ice cream and powdered sugar-covered beignets. We got lost. We took wrong turns.
Many of our wrong turns took us through city centers and were costly both in time and in money. Getting caught in traffic or having to pay unnecessary tolls was like instant karmic punishment for our lapses in attention. At these times, I tried to maintain confidence and morale as the navigator by calmly selecting alternate routes from the map in my lap. Occasionally, when we missed the appropriate junction or exit, I didn’t say anything and quietly chose another way rather than telling the driver to turn around. This bit me in the ass a couple of times, the worst one being when we accidentally crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge headed east from Philadelphia into New Jersey. We had meant to circle west around the city to where we would stay with a friend of Kate’s, but the detour into the wrong state forced us to backtrack. It was then that we learned that all bridges into Philadelphia are free to motorists leaving the city, but cost three dollars to cross if you intend to enter the city, and we were left to frantically dig around the car for quarters to pay the toll.
Times like these made me feel as though my map had betrayed me. Modern GPS navigation devices have options that allow users to select routes which avoid tolls, and when wrong turns are taken the little dashboard mounted machine reconfigures its directions to calmly redirect the driver and get them back on track. Something in my core rebels against the idea of having a little box tell me where to go and I scoff at my friends who use their Garmins or Tom Toms for trips to the grocery store and other errands. The displays on satellite navigation systems show generic geometric shapes to indicate where you should go and lack the elegance that a map has. A map is both a tool and a piece of art, and offers a sturdier sense of place, so long as you are able to locate your position on it. This can be a daunting task but when you know where you are on a map, you feel grounded, as if you are part of a landscape that is translated perfectly between dimensions. Reliance on a digital landscape on a digital screen denies the user the chance to intuitively choose their own path based on their own sense of direction because they never truly understand where they are.
Similarly, online navigation tools like MapQuest and Google Maps allow users to forego maps in favor of listed directions which tell them when to turn left and after what distance to merge right, but which ignore landmarks and other features characteristic to maps or verbal directions. But digital navigation tools continue to evolve to fit how users seek to use them. In 2010, Google unveiled Google Bike, which helps cyclists choose the easiest and safest route to their destination. Google Maps has further developed routes suited for pedestrians, which can be utilized in conjunction with their public transportation feature. No longer is a car required in order to get the most out of digital navigation.
Most days, our atlas was enough, and we followed it up the Atlantic, through New England and finally to Vermont, our Northernmost latitude, at which point we turned around. Kate and Figgins left me in DC on the 4th of July and they continued west to Chicago. By the end of the summer, Kate moved to Idaho with her father before attending college at Albion in Michigan. Figgins moved to Arizona with her father before heading off to Smith. I went to American University in Washington DC and we all eventually transferred to different schools. Figgins was the first to leave. She moved back to Colorado after a semester at Smith. I gave American a full year before transferring to Washington University in St. Louis, but Kate almost made it through four years at Albion. She left at the beginning of her senior year, though she never told me why. I found out through a mutual friend that she’s back in Idaho. I hope she’s doing okay.
Kate’s Subaru, Antonio, died last year. On facebook, we all mourned his passing. She still has Joanie, though, the dashboard hula dancer. Figgins still has the trip’s road atlas, though it is now four years out of date, and I still don’t have my driver’s license.
What I do have now is a phone loaded with Google Earth. It politely asks me if it can use my current location and then accesses my GPS coordinates to show me my position from space. It zooms down through the virtual atmosphere, the image pixilating and then sharpening until it pauses and hovers 200 feet above the roof over my head. "You are here," it seems to tell me, like a big red dot on a map in an amusement park and I get a little vertigo from the picture resting in my palm. But I no longer fantasize about connecting the dots behind me. Where I have been is clear. So instead I hope and wait for the image in my hand to change from “You Are Here” to “Here Is Where You Will Go.”
Note: Figgins uses they/them pronouns now, but chose to keep their previous pronouns in this piece to honor and acknowledge who they were then.