Originally appeared in the Fall 2008 Culture+Travel.
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.