Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Getting Lost

One of my favorite books is James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a tale whose premise seems almost quaint these days: a group of people are kidnapped and taken to the mysterious and hidden city of Shangra-La deep in the Himalayan Mountains. That such a land could be unknown to the world must have seemed like a very real possibility when the book was first published in 1933, but in 2015 it seems absurd. Today, surely even a hidden city would be viewable on Google Maps with Yelp offering a list of hotspots.

I thought about this recently as I viewed a map of the world that showed city lights illuminated at night across the globe. Sure, there are still some dark spots in remote areas, but places that were once unexplored or unknown to much of the world are now lit up like Christmas trees, and I imagine that a person filled with wanderlust in the 21st Century might conclude that he was born a couple of centuries too late.

Earlier this year Tim Wu of The New Yorker wrote about how technology has pushed us closer to Never Lost Land, where even an exploration of wilderness is coupled with our ability to know our exact coordinates at all times via GPS – not a very interesting scenario for a would-be explorer. But the author also rightly points out that our dependency on technology could lead to much more severe consequences than a couple of decades ago:

It is, after all, much more dangerous to be lost in the wilds with a dead G.P.S. than with a map and compass. We’ll be never lost until we lose our tools, and then we’ll be much more lost than ever before.

I suspect many of us have fallen victim to this when we’ve been unable to make a phone call, find our way in a city or even look up a vocabulary word due to a power outage or a drained battery. @@Going off-line for even a few hours at home might seem more isolating than being stuck on a dessert island with unrestricted Wi-Fi.@@ Ask a child to look up a word using a real dictionary, and she’ll need extra time to figure out how to navigate this relic of days gone by. Hell, I used to know every phone number of most of my friends and family members. Today, I think I can accurately recite three or four phone numbers.

If one ever pines for the days of driving somewhere and having no clue where the journey will end, take note that you might be in luck, for some of us can still get lost even with a working phone. A few summers ago my wife typed a downtown Chicago address on her phone and started driving, only to find herself thirty minutes later on a rundown street in an unknown part of the city. She called me in a panic and asked, “Where the hell are the big buildings?” I asked her if during her drive she happened to look up. After all, the Willis Tower is viewable even from our hometown of Elmhurst eighteen miles away.  She hadn’t, apparently.

Which just goes to show you two things: 1) reading a map is still a valuable skill even with GPS; and 2) getting lost will always be possible for the directionally challenged.

Copyright, 2015, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved