Friday, March 30, 2012

Old road, new road

        We were a few miles east of the small town of Goff when I realized I’d missed my turn.

Or, to put it another way, I’d missed what I thought was my turn. The road in question, something Google maps had assured me was the fastest, most direct line of travel from Goff to Horton, appeared on cursory glance to be a narrow, rutted path hardly wider than our vehicle and of uncertain solidity. Already once today I’d been mired in a seemingly bottomless muck and had no desire to replicate the experience, plus I’d forgotten about Highway 9’s convoluted, stair-stepping course and was therefore running late for a meeting.

My copilot popped the glove box and hauled out a torn and much-abused map.

“That won’t tell you much on these roads,” I said. “Grab the iPad instead.”

It took a few seconds for what I’d said to register. Never before in the annals of my personal history had I uttered such a statement, at once a betrayal of my lifelong adoration of maps and, in this sparsely populated region so far from familiarity and a computer linked to a modem, odd to the point of bafflement. Lori seemed frozen in place, the map half-opened, her brow furrowed, before giving a soft, “Oh. Yeah.”

Deftly, though, she reached into the back seat, hauled the iPad from its case and turned it on. With a few taps she was tracking our vehicle from space, Goff falling behind, Wetmore in the distance and a maze of feeder roads branching out in a classic (depending on the geography) Jeffersonian grid. Another tap provided two alternate directions to our destination. Pinching two fingers on the tablet zoomed in the map to provide a narrower view, while the reverse motion zoomed out. We had our choice of a regular street map, a satellite image or, my favorite, a three-dimensional terrain map showing the contours of the land.

Paper maps, I thought, are so yesteryear.

I realize that this technology isn’t new to people with smartphones, but our mobile phone has so few features that it’s little more than a tin can on a string. While I’m fairly up-to-date on computing technology, mobile communication has always left me cold. During my decades in Denver I was chained to a cellphone, two-way radio and pager, all of which I gratefully left behind without remorse or intent to continue. After Lori started driving to work at night, however, we broke down and bought one of those pay-per-minute phones for emergency use. I remained adamantly untethered. 

The iPad changes everything. Though it’s relatively new for us, we’re gradually finding ways to fit it into everyday life,  including, on the road somewhere between Goff and Wetmore, as an interactive map of dizzying detail.

As the miles fled past, my eyes kept inching over to chart our progress. I wanted nothing more than to swerve to the shoulder and run the iPad through the paces; where does this road lead, what’s up ahead, what’s behind that we might have missed? Instead, I followed Lori’s directions, passed through the Kickapoo Nation and entered Horton as the sun balanced on the horizon.

Having charted our course (more or less) from home, I knew which way to turn once inside city limits. We headed south on what appeared to be a main thoroughfare, a residential area slowly giving way to churches each which seemed in competition for the most grandiloquent until a gradual decline in grandeur, utility and habitation shed all pretenses. The downtown area seemed long past its prime, a patchwork of shuttered buildings, vacant windows, deserted streets, staggered businesses of various mercantile interests, empty lots, mysterious alleys leading into crepuscular murkiness, blocky WPA structures and a smattering of modern steel buildings juxtaposed against brick and concrete masonry dating back a hundred years or more.

For a photographer, a Kansas Explorer, a lover of old towns and architecture, it was riveting. And, all too soon, over. We parked in a dirt lot outside the community center, light spilling from the front door while around us twilight gilded the buildings in a warm glow that both heightened and softened the perception of antiquity and abandonment, inviting, evasive, utterly mysterious. For a moment the iPad pinpointed our location on a featureless grid of numbered and named streets, but even its crisp utilitarian and technological brilliance was outmatched by our earthbound outlook. If not for the meeting I would gladly have delved into those streets and alleys, but duty called. One tap and the screen went black. The road would never be the same.


shoreacres said...

Well, I'm holding fast to my conviction: invention is the mother of necessity. Anything I have to spend years developing a taste for, or have to work to fit into my life, I'll forego.

I do like microwaves and computers, though. And digital cameras. So maybe one day... Until then, Rand McNally is my old best friend! ;)

Tom Parker said...

And I still have Delorme atlases in each vehicle, so I can't cut the cord yet. Maps are great tools and fun to play around with, but for mobile use the iPad is hard to beat.

shoreacres said...

Well, and then there's this. A brand new, 2012 Rand McNally can be purchased for $10.95 online, $12.95 at Half-Price Books (no postage costs).

The iPad may be hard to beat, but it's hard to afford!

Tom Parker said...

I will cede your point. But the Rand McNally isn't nearly as much fun!

Tom Parker said...

Also: the Rand McNally doesn't show enough detail to be much use on secondary or thirdary (I just made that up) roads.