Last summer, a Swedish couple bound for Capri entered the name of the Italian resort island into their GPS incorrectly and wound up in the city of Carpi, 400 miles away. So oblivious were they to their surroundings that they failed to notice that landlocked Carpi could hardly have been their destination. “Capri is an island,” said a spokesman for the town. “They did not even wonder why they didn’t cross any bridge or take any boat.”
GPS has, at its worst, become yet another distraction-enabler, a way to plug in and let our navigational instincts shut off. On the other hand, GPS does have an inherent use, since people have notoriously unreliable internal compasses. As Colin Ellard notes in You Are Here, his 2009 book about navigation, our minds tend to straighten roads, align points of reference, and turn coasts onto a more orderly north-south or east-west axis. “Our mental maps are not geometrically accurate,” Ellard says. “They’re more like subway maps. They work because they tell the true story about what’s connected to what, but in terms of distance and angle, they’re not right.”
And so we get lost. And alarmed. Not knowing where we are represents a primal loss of control. Yet isn’t that what travel is really about—moving from the known to the unknown? Heading for Marina del Rey, in California, one day, I mistakenly wound up zigzagging around the charming (if progress-hindering) canals of Venice Beach. With GPS, this sort of thing doesn’t happen: in most cases, you just get to where you’re going. You don’t need to pay attention to landmarks. You can ignore your environment altogether.
Instead, may we suggest a compromise: By all means, carry a GPS. (Consider one of our top picks of the new crop, shown in the following pages.) Let satellites guide you to that crucial meeting or rehearsal dinner. But when you’re on vacation—when your destination is not so much a place but a state of being—consider turning your GPS off. Open yourself up to the possibility of losing your way. It might seem unsettling, but there’s a chance that some serendipitous, “accidental” discovery will make your journey all the richer.
Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor.