What could go wrong?
The acquisition of new technology is often a nonevent. Who remembers when they got their first email account, or Netflix subscription? You don't recognize these things as significant until much later. But I know exactly when I stepped into the world of GPS navigation: September 2006. Because that's when I got married. Our honeymoon plans called for a two-week road trip and I knew that without navigational assistance I might be divorced before the fortnight was over. So I spent $500 on a TomTom, my first GPS. I haven't asked for directions since. With the unblinking eyes of medium-Earth-orbit satellites constantly guiding the way, I've nearly forgotten the stress of driving in a strange place. Miss an exit? No big deal. Spy an intriguing side road? Drive down it. GPS has plenty of obvious upsides, but the drawbacks are more nuanced. Insidious, even. Chief among them is an atrophying sense of direction, an inability to get anywhere without a digital Sherpa. I recently got lost on my way home from the airport. I took a toll road that was new a few years ago, one that I've driven perhaps 20 times, always via GPS. I decided to see if I could navigate it without Waze on my iPhone, and within two miles I saw signs for the parking lot I had just left. I was going in the wrong direction. It's not that my instincts were wrong. It's that I no longer had any instincts.
And that's why I'm in Louisville, Kentucky, with a borrowed 1997 Land Rover Defender and a battered road atlas. I'm going to find my way home to North Carolina the way I used to, pre-TomTom, pre-Waze, using guile and road signs and common sense. I'm going to know where I am, really feel it, instead of mindlessly listening for the next instruction as a preordained route plays out on a screen. I'm going to get lost. Remember getting lost? It was scary and frustrating but eventually you found your way and caught a rush of exhilaration unknown to a whole generation of drivers. And maybe you even went some places you hadn't planned to go. Imagine that.
I begin downtown, by the river. It seems that if I get on 32 East, I can find Route 150 toward Tennessee.
It takes about one block for my plan to fall apart. The street I'm on dead-ends and forces me onto a seemingly parallel road that soon wanders off at an angle. I discover that there's the fancy, Kentucky Derby side of Louisville, but also the Thorobred Lounge gentleman's club side. This area's not all strip clubs and liquor stores—there are some burned-down piles of rubble, too. Somehow, I blunder onto Interstate 264, a ring road, where the exit numbers indicate that I'm at least ten miles from where I thought I was. And yet, it works out. See, this is the way you used to do it. You keep driving. I exit for Route 32 and settle in for a long drive east.
I aim to make it to Knoxville by dinner without having any real idea of whether that's possible. It doesn't help that my atlas crams all of Kentucky onto two pages, printed with fonts evidently developed by those calligraphers who can write the Magna Carta on a piece of capellini. So I stop at a gas station to buy a local map. There are none to be found, so I pull into the next gas station. Then a third. In my mind's eye, there are metal racks at every gas station, over near the door, stocked with maps. Well, those don't exist anymore. I don't know when they disappeared, but they're gone. "Try Walmart," says one cashier, as if I could find it.
About an hour in, I'm in traffic-clogged strip-mall hell, stoplights to the horizon. Here's one problem with all maps: They can show you a road, but they can't tell you whether it's driving euphoria or a molasses puddle of commuter despair. This one is the latter, but I can't abandon it, because then I'd be lost. I really appreciate GPS right now. My kingdom for an Alternate Route, preferably one with a Starbucks along the way.
The upside is that I have no concept of time. Instead of compulsively checking a screen to anguish over my plight, I drive. I'm curiously peaceful. I can't do anything about the traffic, so I exist in it, placid. And eventually it gives way, the stoplights dissipating into lush Kentucky countryside. The Defender is happy to amble along at 55 mph, so amble I do, down to Route 150 toward the Tennessee border.
But my plan to get to Knoxville is confounded by my plodding pace. I realize that if I don't adjust, there'll be nowhere to eat. Since I've resolved to abstain from Google as well as GPS, my dining and lodging options are entirely informed by billboards. Can I wait for the Outback Steakhouse? Do I gamble that if I go there, I'll find a hotel? I decide to exit for a hotel and assume there'll be food rather than the other way around, which is how I end up walking into a Ruby Tuesday somewhere north of Knoxville just before the kitchen closes. And no, my kale salad did not actually contain any kale, but it was delicious nonetheless. Truly, I deserved worse for ordering such a thing. But without the paradox of choice, the computers in the sky informing you of your many options and exactly where to find them, a kaleless kale salad can be the best dinner in the world.
The next morning, I see that the Smoky Mountains lie between me and Asheville, the next waypoint. So instead of following any particular plan, I simply follow signs for the Smoky Mountains, then drive right in. But to get better intelligence, I pull over at a visitor center, which is deserted except for the woman inside, who seems delighted that I want human advice and one of their $1 maps. She directs me to traverse the park via Little River Road to Newfound Gap Road, both of which prove outrageously picturesque, the landscape changing from spring back to winter as the road climbs past 5,000 feet. It occurs to me that it's novel to know the names of these roads, the GPS era having reduced travel to an origin and a destination, the places in between evaporating as the turns are checked off. Well, now I know exactly where those roads are, not that Waze would've taken me over them in the first place—these roads are not the fastest or the most direct. They're not necessary. And there's beauty in that.
On the other side of the Smokies, I stop for gas and do a double take on my way out of the convenience store. Over by the door, just like I'd remembered: a rack of maps. I excitedly grab one, which is actually dusty, and the cashier rings it up. I open it next to my Smoky Mountains map, plotting where I've been and where I'm going, reveling in the bygone amusement of reading town names. North Carolina has a town named Bat Cave? And who wants to climb Cosby Knob?
As I pass my 300th mile, my common sense starts to reassert itself. I pay attention to road signs. Need to get on a highway? Look for an overpass. Need a scenic drive? Look for big green spaces on the map.
I plan to meet my friend Keith for lunch at the Lobster Trap in Asheville. "Thirty-five Patton Avenue," he says. "Right off the highway, straight down Patton." I find the place without making a turn awry, but Keith is late. "Waze kept taking me in circles," he says when he arrives. It doesn't matter, though, because the restaurant isn't open for lunch. How could I have known?
Past Asheville, there seem to be ten exits for Route 64, but only one of them is the one I want, which gives me a chance to affirm an odd finding: when I ask for directions, nobody asks why I don't just use my phone. They want to help. A guy with a Jeep at the gas pumps outside Mocksville points me toward Route 64, not questioning why a time traveler from 1997 is getting in his face with a map.
In my driveway, the trip meter reads 657 miles. I fire up Waze and plot the route back to Louisville: 558 miles. So I added 99 miles of wandering. What's that, a few hours over a two-day drive? Not a bad investment, if you ask me. Because along the way, I reactivated the inner compass that once guided me. It wasn't infallible, not accurate to three meters, but it was useful, like knowing how to do division on the back of an envelope even though your phone has a calculator. Because I won't always have an omniscient supercomputer in my pocket. But I bet I can find my way home from the airport.
Big thanks to for letting us borrow the cherry Defender seen here. This story appears in the September 2017 issue.