Into the Wilderness: Google Maps & Self-Exploration

“We are going to the moon that is not very far. Man has so much farther to go within himself.”

                                                               – Anais Nin, Writer

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Al_HikesAZ. Flatiron from Brown’s Peak Saddle – Four Peaks Wilderness. 2010. Flickr.com. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.

When I was in Spain, I made friends with a guy from Wales who had travelled a lot. He had been all over Europe, through Asia and Thailand and other far away places, and had spent extended periods of time in cities in Germany and France. I spoke of the places I had travelled to, but he seemed bored by them; Paris and Rome and Barcelona numbered among the familiar destinations, and he longed for the places that few had been before. But, nowadays, what terrain is left untrammelled? What foreign stretches of the earth have not been seen or trekked or surmounted in some way?

It was just over ten years ago on February 8th, 2005 that Google’s mapping service began. Now, the ubiquitous nature of the Google map means that I can instantly plop down into central Paris in front of Opera Garnier; I can turn to either side to see Lancel or Café de la Paix, and look behind me to where Avenue de L’Opera stretches off into the distance. It would be possible, using Google Street View, to convince oneself that a street had been walked and its sensory experiences conjured up. But when every street corner has been nailed down, what uncharted territory can we dive into for the sake of knowing?

When I was travelling, there was a certain peace of mind in knowing the corners I would have to turn at to get to a hostel or train station without having to pull a map apart from end to end and becoming the tourist archetype. While mapping things worked in most places, the medinas in Morocco were still noticeably unlabelled, looking wild and out of place next to the orderliness of the new city. I remember feeling both relieved and dismayed at the time, but now – a number of years later – the twisting, inescapably narrow and unpredictable networks of streets are perfectly managed, tied up in names and bows.

The problem with the need to map – and in effect – nail down everything is that it points to a deep-seated cynicism. The lot of man is certainly to infer and grasp, to develop knowledge and systems by which we can know, but our knowing is a metaphor that resonates beyond itself. What are we so afraid of not knowing that we must define with such avarice? And why are these things – street corners and plazas – the bits of knowledge we must pin down?

Anais Nin, the writer of the leading quote, came of age in an era much different than ours. While Nin wrote many novels and short stories in her lifetime, and lived a life full of travel experiences and artistic friends, it was her diaries that solidified her reputation. Consumed by the day-to-day, Nin’s journal was full of personal musings, her inner struggles and her interest in psychoanalysis, and all of the questions provoked by an inner life that was meant to be understood. It was the passageways into the self that Nin was most perplexed by, that made her think true exploration – the unknown territories – existed largely within. Most often, we are amused and infatuated with what is out there, but what of the rest?

There is less of wilderness now than ever before, but still we look for a world that we can put our footprint on as if this is the pathway to newness and knowledge. There are few grounds left to tread, few places that another person has not walked, but the passageways into the self remain a wilderness that no one can map, and most would not be tempted to.

In a time where what is known has stamped out much of what’s wild, is it still really something out there or does it exist deep within, even more unknown than before?

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