The distance between St. Petersburg, Florida and anywhere in New England is — to put the matter in technical terms — a very long way. So there is ample opportunity to get lost. And, while I have already established that Strudel makes a great traveling companion, she does have one major deficiency. She’s no good at giving directions.
For one thing, she’s nearly always asleep. And, for another, even if she can read a map, she’s never managed to communicate what she’s read in any manner that I find intelligible. So I have to rely on Google Maps.
“What’s the problem with that?” I hear you ask. Well, there are two, actually. The first is the lack of a bigger picture. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. The United States really is a huge country. If you have someone sitting alongside you, grappling with a large sheet of paper or a big book of maps, you get some sense of how vast it really is, and of how far you are traveling. I have driven through France many times before we went digital, and that provided a great sense of context.
By contrast, all you see on a phone screen is a few miles ahead. Now I admit that Google Maps has proved highly efficient, and there haven’t been any arguments about what that symbol right in the fold might mean (or whether it’s just a squashed crumb from yesterday’s cake). But there is definitely something missing.
The second problem is even a bit scary if I think about it for too long. It might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s this. I seldom have any idea of where I am. Sure, I’m on the I-95, or US-11, or whatever. But where in heaven’s name am I?
The only real concession that Google Maps makes to this predicament is to welcome you to each state as you enter it. But that just feels weird. Who decided that Google should welcome travelers on behalf of North Carolina, for example?
Maybe there was a vote on it. After all, Americans like voting on everything, though why there should be a vote for a city’s tax collector or auditor beats me. Surely that’s not a political matter. Can’t it just be someone who understands arithmetic?
In fact, the only way I can tolerate being welcomed by Google Maps is to give it a human name. The voice is a pleasant contralto, and comes across as slightly bossy. I have decided she’s a brunette called Elaine. So Elaine is now the one welcoming me to each state. But she still doesn’t tell me where I am within a state.
If Strudel could master the cellphone, I suppose she wouldn’t need a map to tell me where we are. She could just look it up online. I can imagine Zoë doing that in a blur of thumb twitches. But therein lies Strudel’s problem. Her lack of opposable digits rather puts the damper on that possibility.
Honestly, though, it shouldn’t really be up to Elaine to do this. Why don’t towns in the US announce themselves? I’m not talking Google Maps here. I’m talking a simple sign or two, like the way they do it in France: one with the name of the place as you’re entering, and another sign — exactly the same, but with a line through the name — as you leave.
Otherwise, driving a long journey in the US with no human for company is, I imagine, a bit like traveling in the UK during the Second World War, when all the signs were taken down so as not to assist any German spies or invaders. Does someone know something I don’t?