Over Veterans Day weekend, my wife and I sought temporary refuge from the perpetual onslaught of our technology-driven world with a brief retreat to what used to be one of the American West’s most remote places. Not anymore.
While we waited to be seated for dinner at our favorite local restaurant with its unmatched Baja cuisine, it occurred to me that Center Street in Moab, Utah, on a Thursday in mid-November 2021 felt more like downtown Denver — with far more fifth wheels and F-350s than one might find on Colfax — as opposed to a remote desert outpost where John Wayne used to alight when filming those old western movies.
Being the planner that I am, for the following Friday morning, I had identified Canyonlands National Park’s Neck Springs trail as our first hike of the long weekend. Relatively close to our accommodations in Moab, yet inside the national park, it ensured that harder-and-harder-to-find sense of solitude in the Utah wildlands, so popular has the Moab area become (and understandably so) with the more — shall I say — motorized cohort of America’s desert-loving recreators.
Neck Springs trail starts exactly where you would expect, just past “The Neck,” a geologic feature connecting the “Island in the Sky” district of Canyonlands National Park to the rest of the world. The Island in the Sky is just that — an elevated island of unmatched unique high-desert beauty — except for the high-desert beauty on all sides, that is. It’s a loop trail a little over five miles long that meanders among the canyons just to the north of the park’s main road.
Just before we descended the trailhead into the canyon, I absentmindedly snapped a photo with my mobile phone of the interpretive sign containing the trail map. I was sure we wouldn’t need it, so obvious seemed the trail’s general route. Silly me.
It was a perfect day for such a hike. Sunny and cool. Not a cloud in the sky. And nobody else on the trail. We meandered our way through the canyons along the well-worn and reasonably well-marked trail, stopping to appreciate the cool microclimates along the route, made possible by water springing from the ground and green foliage contrasting with the tan and red sandstone canyon walls. I would guess that the tree cover in these sections reduced the temperature from a comfortable 70 degrees to the mid 50s or perhaps even a bit lower.
After about an hour of hiking, I used the Google Maps app on my phone to locate our position on the trail. While we were offline, my phone’s GPS, combined with a saved map, displayed a blue dot representing our location within the canyon. The saved Google Map also, conveniently, provided a dotted line representing the Neck Springs trail (or so I thought). Our blue dot sat right on top of that dotted line, persuading me of its accuracy and truthfulness. We followed the trail for another 45 or so minutes. Periodic checks of the saved Google Map on my phone confirmed every time that the blue dot representing our position remained, through several twists and turns, darn near that dotted line. Until all of the sudden, it didn’t.
While Google Maps insisted that we should turn east, the trail continued to head north and then bend to the west. I figured that the northwesterly trail had to be a different, unmarked route, and that we had just missed our turn. We spent the next 20 minutes backtracking and looking for a proverbial fork in the road that, as it turns out, didn’t exist. But that didn’t matter, based upon the irrefutable evidence provided by Google, I had convinced myself that the northwesterly trail was the wrong way to go.
Then I remembered the photo I had snapped of the trail map. Scrolling to my photo gallery I pulled it up. Toggling back and forth between the photo of the trail map and the saved Google Map that I had thought also provided a representation of the same trail, the issue became apparent. Google Maps was trying to take me in the wrong direction. North and west was the right way to go. The Google Map was wrong.
I was immediately transported back to last summer’s Glenwood Canyon mudslides along the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire burn scar that resulted in I-70’s multi-week closure. I remembered how during that event, Google Maps’ directional algorithm sent unwitting drivers over Cottonwood Pass and, even worse, past Ruedi Reservoir and up the jeep road towards Sylvan Lake State Park, to avoid the closure. Coming home from Grand Junction during that period, Google Maps tried to route me over Thompson Divide to get to Carbondale, having determined in its algorithmic wisdom that the I-70 highway closure actually began to the west of its interchange with Highway 82. I retook manual control of my navigational duties and we uneventfully completed our hike.
I also wondered. Given its road map obtuseness earlier this year, why on earth had I so unthinkingly ceded my trail map navigational decision-making to a tech giant like Google whose interest in monetizing my experiences is unrelated to finding the right way to the end of the trail? It seems to me, that in this day and age, whether it’s a trail map, or a trial result, or virtually anything else that matters, our growing dependence on social media to do our thinking for us is a question worth pondering.