Many studies warn that we are addicted to, and dependent on, our smartphones. Certainly, in many ways these devices have complicated and even worsened our lives. But for me, someone who has always struggled with directions, a smartphone with its GPS and camera function has changed my life for the better.
Across a few decades, my husband’s career has moved us from small towns to big cities all over the country. Back before GPS and smartphones, I called to get directions to any place I needed to go, and then, usually, I still got lost, routinely arriving late and harried to doctors, dentists and even job interviews.
Once, I was so excited to see my sister, after picking her up from the airport and chatting with her nonstop as we drove, that we ended up in rural Kentucky instead of our Cincinnati, Ohio home address.
Parking lots were another place where I routinely became lost. Once I spent two hours in the humid heat trying to find my car.
In time, I learned when we moved someplace new, to just drive around in circles in our new towns until the area became familiar enough that I could navigate to places like the grocery store, my kids’ school and the doctor’s office without becoming lost.
Parking lots were another place where I routinely became lost. Once I spent two hours in the humid heat trying to find my car. In tears and sick from heat exhaustion by the time I found it, I vowed to take more notice when parking in the future.
But I would still get lost.
Finally, when my daughter turned four or five, I began telling her it was her job to remember where we’d parked because she had a better memory for it. Thanks to her, we usually found our parked car.
Now, I never have to get lost because I have GPS on my phone. And these days, I take a picture of my car location. Using my phone to find my way is such a regular part of my life that until one recent evening, I almost forgot what it feels like to be hopelessly lost.
A Lovely Day Turns Frightening
Not long ago, my husband and I moved to an apartment in Sarasota, Fla., yet another new town for me to navigate. One day, after several hours of working, I noticed the time and after checking the bus schedule online realized that if I hurried, I could catch a city bus to the beach, go for a swim and finish in time to catch the last bus back. (My husband was traveling for work and had our car.)
Breathless, my feet sore from running to the bus stop in my flip flops, bus pass flapping in my hand, I boarded with a minute to spare. I’d left my phone home on purpose as I didn’t really want to leave it on the beach unattended. Later, I’d come to regret this decision.
The day was lovely. Sunny and 75 degrees. I carried my flip flops and walked barefoot along the shore, wrapping a perfectly intact sand dollar in a tissue and tucking it into my hoodie pocket. When I entered the water, it was cool and inviting, the sun shimmered on the turquoise waters as pelicans swooped nearby diving for fish.
Refreshed as I always am after 45 minutes in the water, I dressed and walked to town. I popped into a store to window shop and ask the clerk the time. She said it was 5:05. Even though it was 15 minutes until the last bus, I headed to the nearby stop to wait. Ten minutes, 15, 20 minutes passed. But the bus did not come. Could it be running late? Had the store clerk somehow given me the wrong time? I didn’t have my phone to look up the real-time schedule or even the time.
When the sun fell behind the houses on the road and the sky turned pink and then a glorious purple, I was too flummoxed to enjoy the beauty. After waiting an hour without seeing a bus, I decided to walk the three miles home, even though all I had on were my flimsy flip flops.
With each step, it became darker and soon nothing seemed familiar. The streets were deserted, and only huge gated estates were visible. I was too embarrassed to buzz one of them to ask where I was. I continued to walk. Why hadn’t the bus come? Had I taken a wrong turn back in town which was built around a circular road?
Finally, when I spotted a biker, I waved to him. He slowed, and when he got close, looked at me and sped on by. Was I that scary or harried looking? As I walked on, I came to a sign that told me I was miles from where I meant to be.
If only I had my phone, I could have put in my home address and let my GPS guide me.
If I had my phone, I could have hailed a Lyft or Uber.
Memories of Being Lost
As my anxiety grew, I had a flashback to the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college when I was working at a factory 15 miles away from my family’s home in Phoenix. I decided to ride my bike to work instead of carpooling with a neighbor. I made it fine in the morning, but on the way home, soon grew lost and the intense heat made me feel faint.
By the time I limped into the house around 9 p.m., I’d walked over 10 miles in the dark in flip flops.
Finally, I made my way to a gas station payphone and called my father. “Where are you?,” he asked. “I don’t know,” I sobbed. At my father’s urging, I left the phone dangling and went inside to ask the gas attendant the address. After giving it to my father I waited under the shade of an awning until he arrived and drove me and my bike home. I never rode it to work again.
But on the day the bus didn’t come , even if I could find a store or gas station, my husband wasn’t in town to pick me up and I didn’t know anyone else well enough to know their number by heart.
Another bicyclist went by and this time he stopped when I flagged him down. He pointed out which way I should go. Without my phone, my only option was to walk back the way I came. An hour plus later, when I returned to what I thought had been my correct bus stop, I realized it was actually one of two on the roundabout. Once I located the right bus stop, I figured out my way home.
A Sense of Reliability
By the time I limped into the house around 9 p.m., I’d walked over 10 miles in the dark in flip flops. My feet were blistered, I’d been spooked by birds flapping out at me in the dark, I had needed to pee so badly I’d relieved myself on the side of the road and my anxiety level was sky high.
Quickly, I turned on the bath. As I undressed, I found my sand dollar diminished to crumbs of sand. Sipping from a large glass of iced tea, I soaked my body as I unlocked my iPhone. My beloved phone. My Google maps app. My Lyft app. My Apple Pay. My clock. My flashlight.
While I don’t doubt that relying on phones “dumbs us down” and sometimes takes away from real live social interactions, it also can bring a calmness, reliability and comfort to people like me who are directionally challenged.
Thanks to my phone, it’s been a long time since I felt the kind of panic I used to regularly feel when lost, and for that I am grateful.
I know I don’t plan to be without my phone again when I head out someplace that’s even the least bit unfamiliar to me.
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