The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We took a family road trip without technology. Here’s what happened.

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“If you had an iPhone, we wouldn’t be lost,” said my 12-year-old daughter Annie, shaking her head and refusing to climb another steep hill in San Francisco. I couldn’t abandon her on the sidewalk, but I wasn’t ready to accept that she might have a point.

We’d left our budget hotel in search of breakfast after a long (and delayed) flight from North Carolina the day before. And I was determined that on this trip, as with my childhood adventures with my parents and three siblings, we would navigate with old-school maps, rather than a programmed voice in a rental car. We were embarking on a one-week journey to my sister’s house in Seattle with one key challenge: We wouldn’t have a smartphone. But I worried that it might not be possible or prudent, and we would end up stranded at a fruit stand on Highway 101.

After saving for the plane tickets, I ordered Rand McNally maps of California, Oregon and Washington for a total of $7. (“You can still buy those?” my friend Vicky asked.) When the package arrived, I unfolded each map on the kitchen table, but my throat tightened as I looked for our route, not a good sign for the trek ahead. I remembered the real-life stress of plotting a course during childhood trips.

My late father, a Navy officer and IBM salesman, was an expert navigator on sea and land. As an adolescent, I had once panicked when he asked me to use a nautical chart to prevent us from running a small sailboat aground during a storm. Given the high stakes, my heart beat faster as I got my bearings, avoiding the sandbar by inches. As a 52-year-old single mom, I planned this expedition to honor my parents, who created adventures on a shoestring. I was traveling with just one child, because my 19-year-old was working at a summer camp.

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While I coordinated logistics, my younger child ignored my campaign of cartography by walking past the kitchen with Top-40 tunes streaming on her iPod Touch. The truth was that I spent far too much time online, answering emails from students and checking Facebook when my children weren’t looking. But unlike everyone I knew, I didn’t carry a cellphone in my daily life. Because we live in a 900-square foot duplex on the college campus where I teach, it was usually easy to get in touch with me, although some colleagues taunted me for my Luddite behavior. So I printed directions for the trip from Google maps, just in case, and added minutes to a prepaid flip phone.

Our first morning in San Francisco, I asked my daughter whether she wanted to check the map to find the affordable restaurant recommended by our hotel.

“I don’t like maps,” she announced.

Growing hungrier as we ascended another hill, she finally asked to see the guide to the city. Within 15 minutes, she had found our destination, where she ordered waffles and I savored a mug of coffee. We became co-navigators: She counted the blocks on the map as we walked while I used it to orient us, and then we relied on hunches.

After walking nearly four miles round trip on the Golden Gate Bridge the next day, I led us to a bus headed in the wrong direction, adding an extra hour of transit at bedtime.

“It’s good to get lost so you can get yourself out of the situation,” I told her.

The true test came when we rented a Hyundai to drive up the Oregon coast. At the rental car office in the airport, I showed the agent my printed directions to Highway 101.

“These are all wrong,” she said. “Google is taking you away from the city, but there’s no traffic now. My route will save you an hour.”

As we drove, my preteen co-pilot kept the map folded by her feet. Rather than counting city blocks, she tracked exit numbers, and I checked on our progress when we stopped for road-trip junk food.

On our last day, when I was feeling smug about my experiment, we took a ferry in the morning and planned to take public transit back to my sister Margaret’s house in West Seattle. When we couldn’t find the right bus, I reached into my bag for my flip phone to call her for help. But I’d left it charging in her living room.

I couldn’t call an Uber or look up the bus route. My anti-tech advocacy had stranded us.

“Maybe we should take the bus across the street that’s going in the opposite direction?” my daughter asked. I looked across the busy intersection and saw that she was right. After a week, she was reading maps but more important, trusting her gut by paying attention to her surroundings. My father would have approved.

As an adult, I watched my dad rely more on my mother’s instincts than his analytical skills when they completed the trifecta of long-distance hikes: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. He said their greatest asset on the trail was her intuition. At ages 58 and 63, they died in separate bicycling accidents two years apart, both killed by teenage drivers in our Alabama hometown. Their adventurous lives and sudden deaths a decade earlier influenced every decision I made, especially when I didn’t know what direction to take.

Although my mom walked from Mexico to Canada, she got flustered leaving a message when answering machines first came on the market. I felt that same incongruous uncertainty raising my daughters with technology in their pockets. This road trip — with a map I held in my hands — showed me the big picture, rather than a digital image. My parents would have enjoyed seeing their oldest daughter and youngest granddaughter unfolding a map to chart the path ahead.

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