For more explanation of this month’s theme, “millennials in thirty things,” check out this post.

The GPS. A thing, sure—but also a way of life. Its ubiquity and prominence in our lives is immediately evident just by scanning this blog’s archives. For those among us who consider themselves directionally challenged, we can ask in a very literal sense, “Where would we be without them?” Whether it’s a Garmin fixed to our windshields or a smartphone app for the flâneurs, our GPS devices and their related web mappings and route planners guide us through unfamiliar terrain…and, perhaps, the familiar ones too.

We millennials have grown up seeing the swift changes in this overarching satellite technology. A couple decades ago, atlases were road-trip Bibles; now, only the Luddites flaunt them as a badge of honor. For everyone else they are a last resort: “They take so much work!” And remember MapQuest? Please chime in if this is still your go-to navigational preference. I, for one, haven’t used it since, oh, 2004. Heck, some of you may even say an actual GPS device is clunky and obsolescent…but don’t worry, I have the Google Maps app as my main cruising crusader.

However, for all its benefits in helping us find our way, I can’t help but think of what we’ve lost while we ensure we’re always found. I thank my GPS for safe travels (and even for saving my marriage), but there’s something mysterious, vulnerable, and wonderful in really, hopelessly, finding ourselves lost, or even just wandering. For every unexpected turn, there’s a story. For every local who offers us directions to get back on course, there’s a good lesson in forsaking our pride, acknowledging that some areas we just don’t know, and recognizing the help of a stranger and traveling on trust. I’m anything but the most world-traveled among us, yet even I can lament the anticlimactic answer to the perennial question of our youth: “Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?” She’s sitting in a café in Palo Alto writing a nasty Yelp! review, and, yes, she’s on Foursquare.

It seems as if we always know where we’re going, and if we’re on social media, others can potentially know where we are. The GPS is the millennial’s paradox: we may know where we are, but all too often we don’t know what we’re doing. In this sense, our navigational systems are our security blankets, and, like Linus, I rarely leave home without it. It’s a dependency, and one I am unlikely to shake: I’m the last person you want to be holding a compass, unless you want us to be lost more north.

I should get out more often. Deliberately. In a true Thoreavian sense. I cling to my GPS, and—if my hunch is correct—I’m not alone in this. A host of Eagle Scouts can stamp on their merit badges in disgust. Lewis and Clark roll in their graves on my account. But, given my lack of spatial awareness, I’m sure I’ll soon have occasion to be lost, and, maybe this time, relish it for a little while. It may be just around this corner… Or maybe this one… Or maybe that one over there…

How about you? Are you as reliant on your Garmin or Google Maps as I am? What chances have you had lately to find yourself lost?


  1. Avatar

    When Matt and I were on vacation up north recently looking for Sleeping Bear Dunes our GPS told us “Drive .4 miles, then navigate off road.” It was hilarious and awesome and I’ll never forget the off road navigating that we did indeed do. Maybe taking occasions to intentionally get you lost should be a GPS feature . . .

    • Jake

      Few phrases alarm me more than “then navigate off road.” In my experience, a GPS does have a feature to get lost: “shortest route,” which takes travelers down many an unpaved side road, residential neighborhoods, and the like…just for future reference.

  2. Elaine Schnabel

    I’m still too cheap to pay for international smartphone coverage like a real adult, and this summer was filled with so many good getting lost stories. Once I hiked an entire mountain and rode a ski lift in order to get a vantage point to get my bearings. I had blisters the size of a nickel on both heels by the end of the day. Horrible day, yet weirdly satisfying.

  3. Katie Van Zanen

    We’ve had a full-on family fight over the GPS– in a Chrysler minivan, on the highway, in Sacramento. My mom thought my dad should remember how to get there from thirty years ago, and he oughtn’t let the computer think for him. All five of us were yelling and yes, we missed the turn. But we use the map so long as my mother is in the car.


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