Graeme Wood

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Small World After All

Originally appeared in the Fall 2008 Culture+Travel.

Courtesy of Google Earth

Since Google graphically shrank the Earth, the most far-out trips start at your desk.

When I first logged in to Google Earth, I felt liberated from gravity, space, and time—unmoored from the planet and allowed to soar, like a great bird, and discover the world’s mysterious grandeur. I could go anywhere from my computer. And where, unfettered at last, did I travel first? To the tar roof of my own building. I had no idea there were so many air-conditioning units up there. Is that my clothesline in the back? Are those my socks? The irony was at my own expense. Google Earth is positively pregnant with potential for travelers. And yet my first impulse—yours, too, I bet—was to examine the contours of my own living space, in case the view from above was more than tar. The temptation is deep to explore what you already know, as if an undiscovered screen image were just as harrowing and foreboding as an undiscovered country. But professional travelers have begun exploiting Google Earth, both to find new sites for exploration and to enrich their knowledge of places they’ve already visited. Nathaniel Waring, president of the high-end tour outfit Cox & Kings, scouts potential adventure-tour locations by prowling Google Earth obsessively. Scouring coastlines for surfing destinations, for example, he points out the wispily serrated shore of Scorpion Bay, in Baja California. The wisps suggest “a very good point break,” he says, something no atlas can convey.

At the end of last year, he zoomed in deep to follow Colombia’s northern Pacific rim—an undeveloped coastline plagued by armed rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. From Bahia Solano, a mud-road settlement served weekly by commercial airlines, the coast stretches about 100 miles to Panama through virgin territory. Jungle reaches all the way to the sea, unwinnowed by aggressive logging or human settlement. Waring visited in September 2007 and found the coast as unspoiled as he had hoped. On Google Earth, Bahia Solano itself is a brown, blurry smudge at the mouth of a meandering river, with a small but still discernible grid of streets.

Waring looks for a combination of what Google Earth can see and what Google Earth cannot see. The orderly streets mean a developed town. But the messy green blur of the coastline means precisely the kind of fresh geography that makes travel an adventure. To find a frothy fringe of waves in an area so remote that Google (or, more precisely, the commercial satellites on which it relies) hadn’t bothered to map it was to discover a new place that even today would qualify as what Joseph Conrad called “the blankest of blank spaces on the Earth’s figured surface.” Near Bahia Solano there are, Waring confirmed, some of the great surfing sites of South America, and the area will be a hell of a trip for surfers, ecologists, and whale-watchers, once he can figure out how to keep the rebels from kidnapping his clients.

Other tour operators have used Google Earth more modestly. Steve Filipiak, director of Internet marketing at Abercrombie & Kent, says his company’s tours to Africa have profited from examination with Google Earth’s bird’s-eye perspective. While preparing a safari in Zambia, for example, Filipiak might notice a clearing and suggest that their local experts go there and assess it. “Often,” he says, “they’re surprised by what we can find from a computer thousands of miles away.” A&K also offers a Google Earth tour for its clients, so they can preview their itinerary and bounce from campsite to campsite before leaving home.

I mapped out a trip of my own on Google Earth. I wasn’t quite ready to trust the program to help me stalk rhinos or hang ten with the FARC, but I could imagine a short driving tour through the Mojave Desert. In Las Vegas, I watched my preview: a long straight shot up through the desert into Beatty, then to Goldfield, followed by a crossing of the Inyos and a drive back through Death Valley. A combination of nuclear testing and harsh climate has made these areas as remote and inhospitable as anyplace I was likely to find in the continental United States. The desert is also so bleak and empty, I felt, that if Google Earth could provide reasons to stop and study its vast and undifferentiated still life more carefully, then it would have earned its keep by that alone. From my Vegas hotel room, I looked for sites of interest along the way, most of them user-generated pins that marked curiosities on the roadside. There were many—brothels, scattered mining settlements, ghost towns, government sites where military scientists detonated bombs and probed aliens.

On the drive up, I faced a broad and open sky so large that the rain clouds, each of which moistened many thousands of acres of desert, looked lonely and distinct, separated from each other by big gaps of clear blue. I stopped first at Mercury, Nevada, where the U.S. government was blowing up hydrogen bombs well into the 1960s. (The nuclear blast featured in the most recent Indiana Jones film took place there in 1957 and spewed radiation into the atmosphere not an hour’s drive from the Las Vegas Strip.) Google Earth users have pinned dozens of orange dots to the landscape to indicate where tests took place. But I wasn’t allowed to see them, of course. Less than a mile from the highway, at an unmanned guard post in a stretch of haunting open desert, a sign informed me that if I went any further I’d be trespassing on military and Department of Energy land.

What the government forbade, Google encouraged. At my computer I had poked around the streets and warehouses where scientists engineered weapons of unimaginable force. And just over the ridge, I had hovered over huge craters, some a quarter-mile across, where the nuclear weapons had passed their tests. I’d viewed the cafeterias where the scientists ate dinner after a successful boom. Google Earth had whetted my appetite for an historical tour of Nevada—and had in fact provided a better tour than the real-life one. Having seen the sites from above, I was mostly happy just to snap a picture of a sign that read: “You are now entering the Nevada test site,” and absorb the windswept vista of the civilian frontier (and perhaps a little background radiation).

After a visit to Goldfield—once the largest city in Nevada, now a ghost town whose last residents are all trying to leave—I turned off into California for a drive back through Death Valley. At Zabriskie Point, I stopped to see if the reality of the Valley’s most famous lookout could match the view from above. Zabriskie, whose beauty inspired a Michelangelo Antonioni film, a life-changing LSD trip for Michel Foucault, and the cover of U2’s Joshua Tree album, looks out over an impossibly colorful landscape of rolling folds of land. The rolls feature a diverse palette of reds and browns, a set of hues that changes with the sunlight. I studied the landscape for a few minutes and projected myself into the minds of an Irish rock star, an Italian modernist, and a bald Frenchman ripped out of his mind on acid. I could see how it might have inspired them all, with or without psychedelic enhancement.

I had a plane to catch, so I left before I wanted to. But as I drove away, I made a mental note to return to Zabriskie on Google Earth, where I would use the “time-slider” tool to change the angle of the sun and watch the full cycle of light and dark over the California landscape. The colors, I can tell you now, are beautiful, even if they’re not the real thing. But as I sit back in the comfort of home watching the sunlight sweep over Death Valley, feeling the cool rush of air-conditioning, and exploring the contours of the forbidden coast of Colombia from the contours of my office chair, I reflect that this experience is, in a way, a sign that the next century should be a lucky one for travelers. We can visit new places, come home, revisit, and see what we missed.

Just a decade ago, before Google Earth existed, Waring had to rely on chance to find new destinations. Once, on a Hong Kong-Delhi flight, he happened to see the Mergui Islands of Burma while looking out the window. He kayaked there a couple years later, and as soon as Google Earth debuted in 2005, he revisited this world-class kayaking destination—that he would never have found, but for the luck of a window seat—from his desktop computer. But only after checking out his own house in Tampa, Florida, first.

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