Sunday, June 22, 2014

Robots on Route 66

   As a pretentious, naive, and as of yet untested youth, I drove all over this great country of ours. To me, at the time, there was something almost magical about the open road and the wonders one might see along the way. Then, as a financially secure and world wary adult, I discovered something even more magical about air travel and the concept of arriving at my destination mostly refreshed, knowing that my car was safely back home in a parking lot instead of littered with fast food debris, in desperate need of an oil change,and perfumed with eau de unshowered Christina. Sure, it was fun when I was living on the east coast and I could hit five or six states in a weekend drive, but after the fifth or sixth cross country road trip, I made a vow to fly anytime I went anywhere with a drive longer than a few hours.
   In recent years, I've broken that vow for a few notable exceptions like the seven hour trek to Corpus Christi (the best beaches are inaccessible without a car) and the ten plus hour trip through the swamplands of Louisiana that we took for book research as much as vacation. Last month we drove through the Adirondacks and into Canada because we had already flown to NY and it was a pretty short drive and well worth it. Most recently, we upped our disregard for my rule by driving nearly halfway across the country. This trip took us along the eastern half of the old Route 66, which simultaneously reinforced my belief that I made this rule for a very good reason and reignited my love of the great American road trip.

   But the great American road trip has changed so much in the last decade, thanks to technology, and I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, you read that correctly. Me, princess robot commander, who sings the praises of technology and might as well rename this blog 2579 reasons you should stay calm, take a selfie, and welcome our Google overlords, has mixed feelings about the technical advantages offered to the modern road tripper.
   First of all, let's look at the obvious. On this trip, I found myself using the one feature that I never utilize on my phone: GPS. Why don't I use it? Because I already have Google maps and I can read maps. Also, when traveling for long distances, the highway is pretty good about not suddenly deciding to spit you out in the wrong direction without giving you plenty of warning first. But GPS can do things like find the highway when you are in the middle of an unfamiliar city and sometimes it can even do this without sending you the wrong way down a one way street or driving into a lake. From this perspective, this is good. Also, GPS can tell you where the nearest Starbucks/Dunkin Donuts/Caffeine Depot is and Google can tell you if they are open. Sure, you get what you want, but it takes away the spontaneous serendipity of finding something new or exciting.
   Yes, you can look for local places with GPS and you can even look at yelp reviews and see if the locals have vetted the place you find. I admit, this is something I do in any city I visit, but there's a small part of me that still thinks gastronomic uncertainty is a part of the road experience. Also, here's a neat little quirk I have: as socially awkward as I am, I never seem to have a problem talking to people I don't know who will likely remain strangers to me. This includes gas station attendants, waiters, and store clerks. These are the people who usually have the greatest tips on where to go and what to see.
   Case in point: we were in a coffee shop in St. Charles, MO and an employee overheard us talking about a WPA project we had seen in Memphis. He told us about another WPA project nearby that turned out to be amazing and cool, but something we never would have found on our own if we relied on a Google search for places of interest along our path.
   And let's talk about those hidden gems. It used to be that finding an oddity along the way was part of the charm of taking a road trip. You might pick up a souvenir or take a picture. Now, you're already checked in on Facebook at the Sacred Miracle Cave before you are even out of the car. Then you need to post a selfie with the entrance to the cave in the background. After that, you need to post a picture of your Sacred Miracle Burrito on Instagram. And then, you need to spend the next half hour complaining on Twitter that you couldn't even see the Sacred Miracle because of the pollution from a local plastics plant. If this paragraph seemed familiar, congratulations, you are well read and now you know who my most cynical literary hero is.
   Is it all bad? No, of course not. There were a lot of things we missed due to driving through the night, but thanks to 4g connectivity in the wildest reaches of the American wilderness, we were able to look up such oddities as the Precious Moments Chapel and the Vacuum Museum, and make a determination as to whether or not we want to go back and see them someday.* And I have to admit, having a phone to call for emergency service in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere is great (like when some hapless idiot who may or not be a younger me forgets to turn off the headlights before crashing out at a rest stop in rural Georgia). So no, it's not all bad, it's just harder to look back on fifteen hours of nonstop driving with rose tinted glasses these days.
   *Spoiler alert: we totally do.

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