I love maps. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t pull out either a map or an atlas and look up some place I’ve heard about in the news to pinpoint its location and to find out more about its geography and culture.
Reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson as a young boy kindled my love of maps. Holding in my hands a map showing the location of buried treasure—marked by skull and crossbones and sought after by swarthy, cutthroat pirates—filled me with wonder and fear.
In a more serene vein, at an early age I also was enthralled with topographical and trail maps, maps that can lead us to the natural treasure of a waterfall, swimming hole, or scenic overlook.
Nowadays digital map applications are available to us “for free.” Having largely replaced hardcopy maps, they have become a ubiquitous aid helping us to navigate through our world. While many of us take these digital mapping applications for granted, it still boggles my mind that I can look up a street address anywhere in the U.S. and at the click of a button be offered directions on how to get there.
And yet, as powerful and practical as they are, digital map applications are not a panacea in all circumstances. As I will illustrate with two short stories involving local travel, regional knowledge and the human empathy will always have their place.
This past summer, my wife Carmen and I set off to visit the local author and frequent Crozet Gazette contributor Lynn Coffey for the first time. She lives with her husband Pastor Billy high in the mountains in Love, Virginia, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway south of the Wintergreen Resort.
Having never visited the tiny hamlet of Love, in addition to consulting our well-worn, fanfold maps, we queried Google Maps for driving directions. Starting from our home north of Crozet, Google’s map application offered us three options. The principal route Google suggested took us up and over the mountains, down into the Shenandoah Valley near Waynesboro, and then back up into the mountains again through Sherando.
None of the routes offered by the map app suggested that we turn onto the Blue Ridge Parkway at Rockfish Gap and simply travel along this road to Love. For us, the Blue Ridge Parkway route offers the most dramatic scenery and is more energy-efficient to boot. The artificial intelligence powering Google Maps did not consider either the beauty of the Parkway or the savings in fuel achieved by not directing us up, then down, then back up the mountains again. If the map app had to get out and push our car back uphill from Waynesboro, it might think twice about its preferred route! Ignoring Google’s suggestions, we enjoyed a leisurely and picturesque ride along the Blue Ridge to Lynn’s mountain home.
A more poignant, travel-related experience illustrates another kind of shortcoming inherent in artificial intelligence applied to digital map applications: human empathy and care.
Last December, Carmen and I enjoyed a weekend matinee concert at the Crozet Artisan Depot—Albemarle Tourism and Adventure Center. Performing were cellist Andrew Gabbert and flutist Elizabeth Brightbill, the talented musical duo who comprise Terra Voce. At the conclusion of their inventive and evocative recital, we walked across the street to Sam’s Hotdog Stand for a late lunch (a friendly place that evokes childhood memories of dining at a Howard Johnsons or at an A&W Root Beer Stand in the 1950s and 1960s).
As we were leaving the restaurant, we met friends in the parking lot with their grandson in tow. After exchanging pleasantries and then parting ways, while walking over to our car we noticed that their truck headlights were still on. Thinking their headlights were on a timer and would turn off automatically, off we drove.
After touring by the several new homes under construction on St. George Street a few blocks away, a nagging feeling prompted us to turn around and go back to check whether their headlights actually did turn off. Sure enough, from a block away we could see that the lights were still on, although perhaps now a bit dimmer.
While Carmen filled up our car with gasoline at the Dairy Queen, I crossed the street and walked over to Sam’s to let them know. They were a little chagrined, but mostly they were thrilled not to have inadvertently tested the endurance of their truck battery, only to find it lacking.
Walking back to Carmen and lost in thought, it took me a moment before I recognized a faint voice calling out for help from a car parked in front of Crozet Pizza. As I approached, I saw that the lady requesting assistance was quite flustered. She had driven up from Richmond for a family gathering in Nellysford, had gotten herself turned around following the directions provided by her smart phone, and was thoroughly lost. I offered my help to get her back on track.
Even from the distance of the gas pumps, Carmen perceived from the distressed look on her face that my informative verbal directions and definitive hand gestures were not what she needed at that moment. What she needed most was reassurance; someone to show her the way. After paying for gas, Carmen drove over to us and asked the lady if she would like us to personally guide her on her way back to familiar territory. “Oh yes, please” she said with relief and a smile.
We caravanned through Crozet, turn west on Route 250, and travelled together as far as Western Albemarle High School. At the traffic light, she pulled alongside of us. Rolling down her window she exclaimed: “You’ve saved my life!” Human empathy and genuine gratefulness are things no map app can provide.
On our way home, as the bright winter sun was setting in the rearview mirror, a retiring raincloud hovered over our mountain farm, showering the land below. Underneath this solitary sentinel—in the unusual straight shape of a pillar—shown the vibrant colors of a rainbow. In this age of big data, pragmatic technological marvels, and virtual realities, we felt blest and grateful to call this stunning, wild place home. And as we stepped through our front door, our hearts still felt gently warmed for having had the opportunity to offer a neighborly blessing to a wayward traveler lost in Crozet with her smart phone across the street from the Visitors Center.