The Ride of the Rohirrim
I remember, as a child, having a car atlas. This book of maps lived in the automobile that my family most likely would use to take longer trips, such as to Illinois for family reunions. In it were page after page of maps, both broad and detailed, state and county and local level, all laid out. Before a trip my parents would plan out the major route we would take. However, as we neared out destination, or needed to take a detour, or returned from a rest stop, occasionally one of the passengers would take the car atlas out, scour it to determine the right location, and the direct how to return to the highway.
How quaint and charming this history seems in the era of Google Maps and smartphones. I haven’t seen a car atlas in years, and the idea of the inefficiency of trying to locate a position on one of those maps in the stress of being lost, hungry, and tired is quite unappealing. Yet I also feel a level of dependence and ignorance now with a GPS at my fingertips. I hardly travel anywhere new – whether walking or driving – without plugging it into my phone and looking at the route. The idea of “roughing it” in terms of navigation is foreign. Even in a city as simple in layout as my own – alphabet one way, numbers the other – I still easily get lost. Without the mountains to orient me as they did as a child, I am never quite sure where north is.
I sometimes wonder if Google Maps has taken from us more than it has given us. Yes, my travel is more efficient and easier than ever before, but I lack the independence, the skills, and the wonder of travel by physical map or sense. And, perhaps even more so, there are the hidden ways that appear not on the screen of phone or computer: the roads too small to be significant, too old to be remembered. These are the routes like the one that Theoden and his riders travel upon, through the wild men’s forest, that one the men of Gondor made. It is a forgotten road, known only by the “uncivilized” and “unsophisticated”; yet it is an important road, for it leads more quickly to the battle, and avoids the dangers and threats set before the Rohirrim.
And so I wonder: what are the hidden ways of my own town and community? Are there roads that the software knows not, and if so, where do they lead? What wonders lay both in their passage and at their conclusion? Who will I meet upon them?
Recently, a major initiative to digitally map out the hiking trails and wilderness paths of the national parks was announced: this, combined with increasing cell coverage, would mean that any traveler on the forest roads would be as at home as on a city street. It would be an impressive feat, and it was lauded by professional hiker and outdoor companies alike; nevertheless, I was saddened at the news. The wilderness disappears; the hidden ways are lost. The forest no longer belongs to the old uncivilized people, and when that knowledge is needed, where will we go to discover it again?