I’ve had this post in mind since the very early days of our trip. I had just dropped Taylor off to check in for the Rebelle Rally. We’d only been on the road a few days, and I had the next week or so to drive from Tahoe back to Oregon in whatever way I wanted. I had a vague route in mind (the best kind of route, in my opinion) but knew I wanted to head across Nevada and then cross through the South East corner of Oregon to check out the Steens Mountians and the Alvord desert, something I’d always wanted to do as a resident of the state, but never found the time for.
I was also looking forward to hitting as many mountain bike trails as possible along the way. I hadn’t yet dropped my beloved mountain bike off at my mom’s and wanted to take advantage of the few precious final days we’d have together. I searched along the route and found a plethora of single track trails for my enjoyment as well as an abundance of National Forest and BLM for overnight stays. The next few days were going to be all early mornings, early bed-times, economics podcasts, mountain biking and leftovers!
As I was making my way around Lake Tahoe, in the direction of my first camp-site of the bachelor portion of our trip, I stopped at a view point to snap a few pictures of the sun setting on the lake. In high spirits I bounded back to the truck, buoyed by the promise of adventure ahead. Just as I was reaching for my door handle, the 7” tablet I had used to take the pictures slipped from my grasp and bounced off the pavement of the parking lot.
I do have a case, but nothing too robust. When I picked the device up off the ground, nothing appeared to be broken, but the screen had gone dark. I wasn’t too worried. I tend to buy used, obsolete electronics from ebay, so replacing them when they break isn’t too big a hit. As I pressed the power button to re-boot it, my mind began working. When it didn’t re-start immediately as usual, my mind began working harder.
All the glorious plans I’d made earlier, all that mountain biking, camping, route-finding adventure; they were made on that tablet. I’d used google maps to plan the basic route, and I’d used another app to search for public lands where I could spend the night. I’d used two more apps to locate all those mountain bike trails, and was relying on still another app to navigate the trails once I found them.
The hours of economics podcasts? Gone.
Even all the product manuals and repair guides for the truck, camper, and fancy gear we’d bought but didn’t really know how to use yet was trapped behind that dark screen.
Of course, all that stuff is backed up and easily recoverable- if you have another device. All I had was my rapidly aging Blackberry, which was really no help at all.
I had just dropped my wife off to navigate the deserts of the West from Nevada to San Diego without the assistance of even a zoom lens, and I didn’t have so much as a paper map. I knew I’d be able to get home. I could easily stop at a gas station and spend a few dollars on a real map, but that perfectly vague-but-optimized, mountain-bike adventure would be lost.
I’m at a lucky age where I remember doing things without the aid of GPS and cell phones, but what I remember is that it made things much harder. To plan the best route home, I’d have to break out the markers and a calculator. To find the best places for camping on public lands and navigate the small, secondary forest roads, I’d need another set of maps that I’d have to buy from a more specialized outdoor store. To find good mountain bike trails, I’d have to stop into bike stores along the way, chat the bike mechanics up, and pry the local single-track gold from their greasy fingers, navigating the trails from chicken scratch on the back of an invoice for chain lube. To find the outdoor store and the bike shops, I’d have to ask random people on the street and hope to get lucky.
Would I have had a worse trip home had my tablet not finally booted up? Definitely not. I don’t think so. It would have been very different. Probably slower, with fewer stops, but more time in each place. In the three days I took to drive the 650 miles from Lake Tahoe back to my mom’s place in Oregon I probably only spoke to two, maybe three people. Seriously. Without the assistance of my electronic buddy, always glowing from its place in the Ram mount on my dashboard, I’d have missed a few turns, asked for directions, and maybe even made a new friend or two.
This little story, with its two possible outcomes really says a lot about what it means to travel today. Our electronics are a huge part of our everyday lives. Their ease of use and nearly constant connection to the internet puts the power of nearly all the worlds knowledge in our hands. We can learn exactly what we need to learn about a very specific place, event, or situation, with only a few swipes of our fingers. The knowledge gained by those who’ve gone before us can be garnered in seconds without looking up from our laps.
The trade-off is that we miss out on one of the greatest parts of exploration and adventure- the human connections made by moving outside our comfort zones and relying on strangers to help us get where we’re going or find what we’re looking for. I was easily able to find perfect trails, right along my route home using the convenience of modern technology. Without it though, I’d have been forced to stop in towns I simply drove through, and talk with people I never met.
The knowledge and comradery I’d have gained from looking for trails in local shops would most likely have changed my drive home entirely. Instead of riding alone, on well-marked and heavily trafficked trails, I may have ridden with a few new friends on local-built, personal favorite routes not yet absorbed by the nearly all-seeing, all-knowing force of the internet. Instead of drinking a beer alone in the camper at night, watching episodes of Chuck, maybe I’d have spent some time post-ride at a local brewery instead.
In this light, it looks like I’m vilifying technology for stealing away yet another connection that makes us human and ruining the adventure of adventure. I’m not. I truly believe that the cost we bear from our reliance on technology is worth the gain.
Yes, I may have had a better, or at least different trip without the use of my tablet, but the reality is that the ease this technology brings adds a lot to our lives. I truly believe that, without the connection to the world the internet gives us, I wouldn’t have been on that trip to begin with. I don’t think Taylor and I would be Running From Monday at all.
Technology has made the barrier to entry for adventure much lower. It’s easy to pull up a map on your computer and trace a route to Tierra del Fuego. It’s easy to go online and bounce from blog to blog, reading about the experiences of all those who have gone before. You can find search forums for advice on gear, and join Facebook groups to learn the road conditions in Peru. Does all this access dial down the “adventure” portion of adventure travel? Definitely. We regularly use an app to find campsites while on the road. It gives the co-ordinates, information like what sort of bathrooms and showers might be available, cost, and user reviews. In the beginning, we planned to use the app only when we were short on time and needed a place to sleep. Now, as living on the road has become routine, we use it almost every day. The lure of convenience is just too great.
Are we missing out on experiences by doing this? Yes. We’re missing out on the chance to chat up locals, searching for a safe place to park for the night. We’re also missing out on the chance to be woken by the police and asked to move in the early morning hours.
There seems to be a surge of people breaking out of the mold of everyday life and taking the plunge, Running From Monday on their own adventures. Instagram is full of people living their #bestlife, and though in some cases it can be manufactured, people can still be inspired to get out and make something! I blame the accessibility brought by technology and I think, overall, it’s a good thing. Sure, the risks are lower, but the rewards are still there. I think anything that helps and encourages us to see a little more of the world with our own eyes is a positive influence on humanity.