In an online video the other day, a fellow wanderer was making his way through an area with which I am fairly familiar. As I watched him follow his camera along the path, I noticed places I recognized, places I had, in my own wanderings, passed by.

I was reminded of an experience several years ago, while driving through Jacksonville, Florida.

I had been stationed there the first five years of my Navy career. Bought my first three cars there, and met the girl who became my wife and mother of our two children. I occasionally fell asleep with stars decorating my ceiling and the music of surf soothing my ears on the beaches of Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra. I flew light planes from Imeson Airport and later Jacksonville International Airport, which was built to replace it.

I knew the area well.

Some 30 years later, when I had reason to drive through Jacksonville on Interstate 95, I discovered a truth: computers — in this case, Global Positioning Satellite computers — make me stupid. Or at least ignorant. As I drove past exit signs emblazoned with names of streets and boulevards I once could navigate with virtually no effort, I discovered I had little idea where I was.

As I watched the video this week, my guide experienced a similar problem — and said as much, several times. He admitted he did not know where he was in the forest, but the GPS in his hand would lead him back to his car.

We get used to our technology always working, but I could not help thinking if the device in his hand lost its connection to the satellites, or he dropped it onto some of the rocks he had been climbing over, he would be in trouble.

The GPS does not care about the position of the sun or direction of the slope. It only knows the shortest distance to the next turn point. If there is a pile of rocks in the way — you figure it out.

There is research a-birthing that seems to indicate our brain develops a part of the hippocampus that increases in proportion to the size of the map its owner carries in her head. The more the hiker depends on turn-by-turn orders from an external command source, the smaller is that part of the brain.

I sometimes wonder how the first explorers found their way across what became the United States, Atlantic to Pacific. Clearly, they followed a path, but who left the first set of footprints? I submit they used what they knew to surmise what was likely to come, then modified that with subsequent experience.

Could the progeny of those first explorers, stuck with a failed GPS, do the same?

I was raised traveling with a Rand-McNally Road Atlas, a large magazine containing maps of all the states plus portions of Canada and Mexico. With it, I could always look out the window and tell the driver, “Up here a-ways, look for a way to turn that way.” Even now, though I trust the GPS in my phone for turn-by-turn, I like looking at a larger map — road or topographic — for an overall view of the terrain before starting on a road trip or hike.

I learned early that up close, it all looks the same.

I once told people coming to visit me they should stop driving when water began to seep around their vehicle’s doors. I knew the road stopped suddenly at the water’s edge.

We need to hang onto our mental map and compass. GPS is cool magic, but it is not yet perfect.

©2023 John Messeder. John is an award-winning environment storyteller and social anthropologist, and lives in Gettysburg, PA. He may be contacted at john@johnmesseder.com