Back in the 1970s, my late husband and I used to drive out to Colorado from Michigan dragging a trailer that housed our two Honda Trail 90s. Honda doesn’t make anything under 150 ccs now, so we called what we had “trail bikes” when now they’d be called “mopeds.”
We’d park the trailer at a gas station for a week to ten days and trail the logging roads, following the US Geological Survey maps we’d brought with us. We were off the grid, camping, riding our bikes, loving the land and the scenery and each other. We swam naked in tarns, cooked over an open fire, made love at 10,000 feet.
These days, I hike in California. One group I joined is the “Sweeps” group that hikes once a week. Our trail leader, Randy, decides what trails we’ll take and we cover about five to six miles each time. No matter what trail we take, Randy makes sure we’re on the right path by checking his iPhone and relying on his GPS.
This method is convenient and provides a sense of security to most hikers, but I experience a frisson of uncertainty each time he checks because even our leader doesn’t quite know where he’s going. Not internally. If his phone died, we’d be fine because plenty of us have phones, so I’m not worried.
I’m just aware that we’ve made ourselves more dependent on our creations (phone) and less reliant on ourselves. Young people, like the first-year college students I used to teach, consider all this completely normal, but when I’ve given them directions on campus to another building, I’ve noticed puzzlement on their faces. Go north, I’ll say, and many don’t know where that is.
When I was a kid, we took classes on orienteering in school, so we’d know how to find directions, how to cope if we got lost. Now, the theory is that we can’t ever get lost. In some ways, that’s grimly true. Satellites will find us, if not through GPS, then through official channels like the police. Yet, people still get lost or disappear, through fair means or foul, and can’t be found.
Living in California, I had to “adjust” myself. I had always lived in places where the ocean was to my east. Now, it was to my west. It took a few weeks for me to absorb that. Of course, I could say that to myself — water to the west — and be fine, but there’s a difference between thinking about it and having it as an intrinsic sense of internal direction.
And that’s what so many of our younger generations don’t have — an intrinsic sense of direction. It makes them vulnerable in ways they don’t understand. Why would they? They have GPS — until they don’t.