Impossible to get lost with a smartphone? We’re not out the woods yet

There I am, soaking in the wonderful insanity that is a high-end conference about immortal human cyborgs, when my fiancé, Jennifer, calls me in a panic.

“We’re lost,” she says. “We’ve been walking for an hour, and now I can’t figure out where we are. It’s getting scary.”

Here she is, standing in a park that I know is closely surrounded by civilization, with the world’s most advanced map in her pocket – and she’s still lost.

“Okay, that sucks. But I’m not sure what you expect me to do about that,” I say. “I’m at freakin’ Lincoln Center. And they’re about to unveil the androids.”

A 41-year-old New York City native, Jennifer has the outdoorsman skills of, well, a New York City native. She can handle a mugger like a champ, but just mentioning the word “snake” in her vicinity sparks a frightening, monkey-brain hysteria. Now she’s lost in a patch of woods, alone with our dog, and I’m in the middle of working, hours away, expected to help somehow. It’s one of those disdainful situations that defines you as a man – and I want nothing to do with it.

“I just wanted you to know where I am, so I don’t end up like the guy in that 127 Hours movie.”

“Darlin’, I promise you won’t have to cut off your own arm. Relax, and tell me what happened.”

Between bated breaths, Jennifer explains that she’s on a hike with our 100-pound mutt, Saggio, in an unfamiliar state park near our home in upstate New York. Not a big park. A Bear-Grylls-would-laugh-at-you-for-calling-it-a-hike kind of park. But they went off-trail in a quest to find a good swimming hole for Saggio, who was sweltering in the mid-June heat. And she completely lost her sense of direction.

“See, that was your mistake right there. Why did you go off the trail?”

“Andrew. I just need to get out of here.”

“Right, I understand – but you have a map in your hand! Just open up Google Maps, start walking, and see if you’re headed in the right direction,” I say. “If not, turn around. You’ll be at the car in no time. No big deal.”



“I tried that already,” she says. “It didn’t work. You know I’m not good with the phone map. It moves too much!”

Didn’t work? Moves too much? Here she is, not two miles from a Dunkin Donuts, with the world’s most advanced map in her pocket – and she’s still lost. I begin to wonder whether I should take her in for a CAT scan.

“Well, try it again. Please. It’ll work. My boss is waving for me to come over. I’ve really got to go. Text me, okay? Good luck!”

“Fine,” she says, hanging up.

During the following 90 minutes of radio silence, I later learn, Jennifer shunned the Google Map plan for something more insane: Get Saggio to help her find the way back to the parking lot. “Where’s the car?” she asked him. “Find the car, Saggio. Find the car.” The diligent pup that he is, Saggio immediately loped off in the direction of … a giant puddle of mud. 

Finally, she launched Google Maps. For reasons I still struggle to understand, zooming out to see the two main roads on either end of the park didn’t help her. She says she still had no idea which direction she was facing, and the walking thing? That didn’t work either.

“It’s not like in a car, where you’re moving fast enough to know which way you’re going,” she tells me. “For driving, it’s good. It just sucks for walking in a rural place. They should fix that.”

(For the record, they’re doing just that.)

Still, she decided to trust my advice, and continued along, staring down at the screen of her iPhone, confused and stressed as ever. Just as she predicted, the battery percentage quickly dwindled to single digits – a real problem with the latest version of Google Maps. The sky was getting darker. The car, out of sight.

That’s when she remembered a key fact: she had a trail map in her bag the entire time. She was just so distracted by the newfangled Google thingy that she plum forgot. So she had not one but two maps and a half-useful dog.

Face, meet palm.

As crazy as it might sound to those of us who use Google Maps every day, the app can assume too much of many users, particularly those born before 1980.

Armed with the kind of mapping technology that her generation grew up on (paper), Jennifer quickly reoriented herself, and began walking confidently. A few moments later, the roar of motorcyclists blasting down a nearby road confirmed that she was headed toward the parking lot.

Those of us whose lives are consumed by technology often lose sight of people like Jennifer, who balk at the notion that advanced technology automatically makes life easier to navigate, and refuse to jump aboard the 21st century bandwagon. These are the poor souls Google and the rest of the consumer tech world don’t actively court – and many, like Jennifer, may never be won over anyway.

As crazy as it might sound to those of us who use Google Maps every day, the app can assume too much of many users, particularly those born before 1980. When I ask Jennifer whether her inability to successfully navigate out of a small park using Google Maps was a failure of the app, or a failure of her tech-resistant brain, she says it’s both. 

“I’m old-school. I like a map that doesn’t move, and spin, and zoom every time you touch it.” But, she concedes, “I’m also a total spaz.”

(Header image © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.)

By Andrew Couts