I bought a new phone the other day. Herbert Welsh, walking from Philadelphia to New Hampshire a hundred years ago, would have called my old phone a wonder. But my LG Optimus S was aged and overloaded, and could do nothing but make phone calls, send and receive texts, and show me exactly where I was, anytime, anywhere, on a map.
That’s all. Back in 1915, that would have seemed a miracle. One hot afternoon in 1915, out of cash in Middletown, New York, stranded in the “financial desert” along the road from Port Jervis to Newburg, Welsh was saved when a local merchant advised him:
“I’ll tell you what you do; ‘phone your bank in Philadelphia to wire you that money and you’ll have it within an hour” A bright and happy thought, surely, and how stupid I was not to have found that out myself. It worked like a charm, and here’s where having an expert telephonist like Dorothy Whipple came in handy. In a moment she was conversing easily with [the Philadelphia banker]…and my mind was in a moment set completely at rest. I blessed the long-distance telephone which could do such wonders.
Dorothy, like the millennial in your office, who not only knows what Meerkat does but knows what to do with it, could take full advantage of one of youth’s blessings: easy familiarity with technology.
We who are old have to figure out for ourselves, “What kind of technology do we want use?”
My walk will be not one of those stunts where you try to live like it’s 1900. In something as fundamental as my shoes, I will be taking full advantage of Goretex, Otholite and Vibram. And I can’t imagine how I could present myself fit for dinner–after a 20-mile walk–in anything other than light-weight quick-dry nylon clothing.
But in the related technologies of communications and navigation I will be choosing restraint. Herbert Welsh relied on printed maps to find his way, and the US Mail to keep in touch–he wrote postcards to friends and letters for publication to the Philadelphia Public Ledger.
Walking in May 2015, I am choosing to bring a series of pages torn from old DeLorme Atlases, back issues of National Geographic, and my collection of USGS 7.5′ quadrangles. My antiquarian fondness for printed maps may seem quaint, but it is not unconsidered. I have earned, after all, an academic degree in geographic information systems.
To find my place on a map is a skill. Here is the world, where am I in it? My GPS, which can instantly create a map with me at its center, starts with me and creates a world around me. But as Copernicus’s mom, and mine, used to say, “The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.”
I also am choosing not to blog my walk. Writing these anticipatory pages the last few months has made it clear to me that I would spend way too much mental and emotional energy in such an endeavor. But I will take a photograph or two every day, attach them to a GPS map and post them on Instagram, so that anyone who’s curious can follow me–and maybe even find me if I’m passing through your neighborhood.
At the heart of my walk, a conflict between solitude and sociability confronts me. I plan to spend eight hours a day alone and afoot. But I also plan to eat and sleep almost every night with people: with strangers from Couchsurfing, with friends new and old, with relatives I haven’t seen in decades–that’s a lot more companionship than I’m accustomed to.
My daughter (who used to laugh at my intellectually challenged “smart”phone) texted me (of course!) a warning when I got my promising and powerful Moto X: “Don’t get too download happy–you probably feel like you have more space than you know what to with!”
I replied that I wasn’t filling that space fast, because “I kind of enjoy having so much empty memory.” A phrase which, as I texted it, seemed not to make much sense, but which has grown on me. Empty memory is something worth cultivating, at almost sixty years old, and a good response to the question concerning technology, too.