Following a Google Map to Nowhere Is Easy. Getting Out Is Hard

The connected map, the GPS dot, is a different sense of safety than the static map.

Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne

This story is part of OUTER LIMITS, a Motherboard series about people, technology, and going outside. Let us be your guide.

At dusk, seven miles later, we hit a trace of civilization: a few telephone poles off the road, and, just visible in the flattening, vanishing light, a house. It was empty and dark, maybe 20 years vacant. It was more eerie than reassuring as the wind picked up and snow started to fall. Here, at one of the highest points on the high-desert Colorado Plateau, the temperature freefalls from dusk until dawn. There's just nothing for warmth to cling to in the thin, dry air.

We didn't need Google Maps to get down the mountain. From the place where we'd had to leave the car seven miles behind us, we could see the municipal airport of Monticello, Utah, at the edge of the foothills below. Or we could see its rotating white-green beacon slicing across the scrub oak. Next to it would be the highway and a high-clearance tow truck that had tried and failed to get up the snowed-over road that we were now navigating on foot in the dark.

Utah's Blue Mountains form a natural boundary between the high-desert scrublands of deep southeastern Utah and the fantastic crumbling Martian landscapes of the Canyonlands. Visible all the way from Colorado, they're a reassuring presence and a geographic outlier. The Blue Mountains are also very remote. At the base is a small town and the highway, but otherwise it's adjacent to some of the most disconnected places that exist in the continental United States. One of those is Beef Basin, a vast, deserted rangeland with access limited to those traveling by hoof or on foot.

It's a geography-enforced wilderness. No man's land.

Satellite view of mountain ranges on the Colorado Plateau in the American Southwest. Red dot marks the Four Corners intersection of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Also noted: ABlue (Abajo) Mountains; L—La Sal Range; S—Sleeping Ute Mountain; C—Carrizo Mountains; H—Navajo Mountain; H—Henry Mountains. Image: NASA

In the summertime, you might see local campers and fisherpeople, but the Blue Mountains winter is arch-desolate. Where we―me, my partner, and dog―left the car high-centered in two feet of crusty snow, the only signs of people were weeks-old snowmobile tracks. And that would be it for the entire hike out.

To get us into this spot, I'd made a classic mistake: I'd followed the map.

Returning from a quick Canyonlands side trip to Newspaper Rock, Google Maps had revealed an intriguing "short cut" that would allow us to diagonal through a lower quadrant of the Blue Mountains. Basically, it looked like an interesting way to get from one part of the desert to another via the mountains.

The road was clear at the start and after a few miles had only become a bit icy and snowpacked. All-wheel-drive can handle snowpack. Another mile went by and snowback had become crud―chopped up, loose snow that has been frozen and refrozen a bunch of times―which became just plain old snow. This is where we should have turned back.

On the map, it appeared that some not very far distance ahead our road would intersect another, bigger road and I let myself assume that that road would be maintained, or would have had enough traffic on it to again be just snowpacked instead of snowed-over. We only had to make it just a little … bit … further. This is where we started losing traction. Unfortunately, we didn't yet completely lose traction―that would happen another mile farther where turning around or maneuvering at all was completely impossible. Which is where we left the car.

That bigger road on the map? It was in worse shape. It was just a graded white gap in the trees, a coiled, engineered meadow. That's what we would follow on our hike out. The thickness of the lines on the map don't make much difference if the roads are all covered over by deep snow.

The constant honing of GPS can have the effect of making very wild places feel very contained and-or under control.

We got out fine. It was exhausting and unnerving and pretty. It could have been a lot worse. It actually seems to happen to people a lot. Take, for example, the woman who spent five days stranded in a remote part of the Grand Canyon earlier this year after hunting for a nonexistent road displayed by Google Maps. Or the New Hampshire hikers who followed Google Maps to the wrong trailhead and an ill-fated bushwhack up the backside of a mountain in 2015. Or the Australian hikers who blamed Google Maps directions for a night stranded in near-freezing temperatures last January.

I've thought a lot about whether it's a trope that actually means something. People were getting lost before they had maps on their phones, after all. We could have followed a paper US Geological Survey topographical map to the same fate, though Google Maps has the advantage of ubiquity. It's also perhaps too much of a comfort or reassurance. The constant honing of GPS can have the effect of making very wild places feel very contained and-or under control. The paternalism of being watched, I suppose.

Read more: I Broke My Phone Biking 180 Miles Alone in Europe

A few years ago I started noticing something alarming. I was still living pretty remote then, this time in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. I spent a lot of time roaming and hiking. Just exploring the trails and tracing the graded contours of old logging roads and railroads that can be picked up on Google Maps' terrain/topo view if you know how to look for them. You can find weird stuff and places that way: rotten bridges of rough-hewn logs and steel cable; rusting steam engines; trees that have grown around old cables in grotesque and baffling ways. It was a hobby.

What happened is that I noticed that I was becoming anxious when my phone went out of range. Moving around the mountains in that area meant constantly falling into and out of reception range and I was getting a little obsessed by it, checking too often to see if I had bars. Mostly, I was worried about an unnamed something happening to me during a stretch without reception. I didn't know what.

I didn't like what that discomfort was saying about me and my relationship to technology. I've spent most of my life doing dangerous things in remote locations: rock climbing, backcountry skiing, whitewater kayaking. And, now, doing something fairly benign I was worried just by the fact of being unconnected.

This is one of the things I think about when I think about how a service like Google Maps makes things different from the "old days." The connected map, the GPS dot, is a different sense of safety than the static map and a sense of direction, landmark identification, and route-finding. It's tech-reliance where there should instead be self-reliance. That's a dangerous thing, generally, and something we haven't even begun to cope with.

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