Posted by: trevormeers | October 27, 2012

Google’s War On Dragons

I’m conflicted over Google Trekker, a new venture that will let users sit at their desks and feel like they’re actually descending the Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon. Google—who, along with Apple, now holds exactly all of the world’s money—is outfitting crews with gonzo backpacks full of cameras and GPS receivers and sending them on hikes into America’s most incredible backcountry. (This job, which you can see in action here, was not the kind of internship opportunity presented to me back in the day.)

When it comes online, I’ll be among the first virtual hikers to try Google Trekker. But there’s a part of me—the part that ignores trail maps posted near parking lots—that isn’t so sure this represents progress.

All hikers juggle information and discovery. We like the mystique of wandering into the unknown, fate as our guide. But we tend to give this up once we do things like get married, have children and generally put a higher priority on coming home alive. So we call park rangers. We buy topographical maps and savor poring over them all winter, picturing ourselves in that canyon right there only three months from tonight.

Guidebooks take the beta (hiker-speak for info) one level deeper, representing a goldmine to some; a nasty spoiler to others. Many of my walkabouts into the Utah inferno have been guided by a Dante named Michael Kelsey, self-publisher of numerous hiking guides to the Colorado Plateau. I’ve stared at countless photos of him in some hidden canyon, wearing short-shorts and high-top basketball socks. A few months later, I have a picture of myself in the same spot, but with longer pants. Kelsey’s a free spirit, as you’d expect from a guy who spends most of his time wandering canyons alone. Convinced that America is about to go metric, for example, he uses only kilometers so that he doesn’t have to revise all his guides in the future.

The Metric Master of the Backcountry surveys a pictograph panel in this shot from Kelsey’s website.

Even so, his books are stunning in their detail. With his instructions, you’ll actually find the specific rocks to use as handholds when scrambling out of a canyon you’ve never visited before. This has earned him a spot in practically every backpack in southern Utah. (In the movie 127 Hours, James Franco photocopies a Kelsey book before his ill-fated journey to Blue John Canyon.) It’s also earned Kelsey some haters who think he’s made it too easy to penetrate the empty places on the map. To some backpackers, he’s the guy who takes the fun out of discovery and goes around blabbing the location of the secret fishing hole.

But I’ve practically worn out my copy of Kelsey’s San Rafael Swell guide. I usually go out with groups—most often intermediate to novice backpackers. And when you play guide, you can’t afford to get people hurt, lost or generally disappointed with how they spent a week of vacation. Just as good lawyers never ask a courtroom question unless they already know the answer, a guide dislikes surprises. “Adventure,” one explorer once said, “is just another word for poor planning.”

When I first took a group into Utah’s Coyote Canyon, I spent days trying to determine whether we could exit up the rock face just below the natural arch. I flew up and down its face on Google Earth. I interviewed a ranger about its difficulty, then called back a few days later hoping a different ranger would answer the phone so I’d get a second opinion. If we committed to the canyon and couldn’t get up the rock face, it would mean an extra three or four hours of hiking as the sun went down.

When we actually got our first glimpse at the rock face, I was immediately relieved. It looked half as tough as I’d feared. At least to me. One guy locked up during the climb, and another later said, “I was really questioning your judgment there for a while.” But we did make it up without any real trouble. Homework validated.

With Google Trekker, such outings will be less of a gamble since I’ll be able to preview the trail at my desk between meetings. As a sometime guide, that means peace of mind.

But as a sometime adventurer, that means a loss. Five-hundred years ago, mapmakers would punt when they came to drawing the part where no one had ever been. They’d sketch in some squiggly waves and a little cartoon and write, “Hic sunt dracones” (“here be dragons”). Satellite photography, Kelsey and Google Trekker have all grown powerful enough to leave dragons almost nowhere to hide. And while I don’t want to get eaten by a dragon anymore than the next guy, I do like the idea that they’re yet lurking somewhere in those places that we’re still just guessing at.

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