How Digital Maps Have Changed What It Means to Be Lost

Tales of people losing their way, before and after GPS

A painting of two people in an old-fashioned car, peering quizzically at a crossroads sign
"Le Tourisme" (George Redon / Getty)

The last time I was ever truly lost was in the summer of 2013. It was in St. Petersburg, Russia. I traveled there for work, and after four days of fighting jet lag to cram in sightseeing on the side, I fell asleep on a bus, nodding off over the copy of A Clash of Kings I’d been carrying with me during the trip.

When I woke up, I had no idea how long I’d been out and if I’d missed my stop. The stop was right across the street from my hotel—pretty easy to spot if you’re not asleep. So I tried to ask the bus driver if we’d passed the Park Inn. I didn’t speak Russian and he didn’t speak English, but he nonetheless made it very clear that passengers were not allowed to talk to him.

I was saved by a young Russian woman who overheard my distress. She tried to explain to me, in English, how to get back to the hotel (we had definitely already passed it), but perhaps seeing that her directions were not breaking through the fog of my panic, ended up getting off the bus with me at the next stop and drawing me a map. She had perfect winged eyeliner, and once she noticed my book, we talked about Game of Thrones for a while.

The instructions were simple: There was one, long main road, and I just needed to follow it all the way back to the hotel. She warned me it could take a while. I guess I’d had a pretty long nap. I thanked her with the gratitude of the truly desperate, and set off.

It was indeed a long way. It was late, too—but since it was summer in Russia, the sun had only just set, and I still had a lavender 11 p.m. twilight to navigate by. I cried a little bit and felt sorry for myself as I walked, worried that the woman’s map would be wrong or that I would make a wrong turn. I wasn’t totally convinced I would make it back.

Then a small and sprightly young man bounded up to me, seemingly out of nowhere. He asked me, in English, if I knew where McDonald’s was. I did not.

“Are you from the cruise ship?” he asked. He was neither Russian nor American; his accent was one I couldn’t place.

Apparently, there was a cruise ship docked nearby, and with precious little time remaining before he had to return to it, he was on a quest to consume a Big Mac.

He asked me about myself, and when he heard I was lost, said he would walk with me for a while. I told him about the event I was covering in St. Petersburg; he told me about his cruise. I had already been shaken a bit out of my panic and self-pity just by his arrival, but he kept me calm until the illuminated Park Inn appeared on the horizon. A small distance away, the lights of a cruise ship glittered in the harbor.

In short order, the man spotted someone he knew from the ship, and ran off to join them. “Goodbye, Julie, I love you!” he shouted as he shot back into the night, a bullet in search of a Big Mac.

A few months later, I bought my first smartphone. I haven’t been lost since—not in the enormous, sweeping, helpless way I was then. I still get turned around occasionally, or confused about where something is, but my phone is always with me, and as long as there’s a signal, there’s a map that can clear up that confusion. My Russian misadventure feels like it might be the last time I’m going to be lost with no map at my disposal, utterly at the mercy of strangers.

I was curious if others felt the same way, so I set about collecting more of these moments—memories of the last times people felt really, truly lost. I suspected many of them would come from the pre-smartphone era—and some of them did—but while it’s easy to think that an interactive map in every pocket would make the experience of getting lost obsolete, it hasn’t. People still get lost, but the proliferation of digital maps has definitely changed the landscape, if you will, of when and how people lose their way.

All the stories in this piece were told to me in interviews, then edited and condensed for clarity.

Dan Krzykowski, a 34-year-old in Minneapolis who works in music publishing

The exact date is hard to pin down, but it would have been just before the proliferation of smartphones. 2007 or 2006. I had been invited to Duluth, Minnesota, to spend time with a friend’s family, and one of the things he pitched doing was snowmobiling—on groomed trails in the woods and on frozen lakes and things like that.

People treat it as sort of a barhopping thing, possibly not wisely. The same bars that are open in the summer for fishing and boating people—generally on a lake—they’ll stay open for packs of snowmobiles to come in and get a beer. So that was the plan.

I was on one of the snowmobiles by myself, and two friends of mine were on a sled together. This was pitch-black of night in the woods. I took a turn and missed how sharp it was and just went a few feet into the brush. The sled got stuck and they didn’t notice because they were on a very loud machine that just kept going.

After about 15 or 20 minutes I figured they’re not going to find me. So I got the snowmobile back on the trail. It was legitimately the first time I had ever been lost lost and it is also the last. It hasn’t happened since. I just decided to guess when I got to forks and try not to go in circles. I had a flip phone, and there was no service.

Eventually after about an hour, the woods opened up onto a lake. I saw a light on the other side, and figured this must be one of those bars. It just so happened that that is the one my friends were going to. I walked in, and I asked them if they had noticed I wasn’t behind them and my roommate said, “Yes, we figured you’d be fine.” And then he said to sit down and have a beer.

Pamela Kingfisher, 66, a consultant near Tahlequah, Oklahoma

It was about 2002, with my husband, in Tennessee. We were exploring Cherokee heritage sites and had gone to the old town of Chota, just northeast of Chattanooga. It’s right at the edge of the mountains. We prayed and laid down tobacco, did the whole thing. Then we got in the car and thought, “Let’s go this other way.” We think this map—paper map, back in the day, we didn’t have a cell phone either—shows that this hill goes up over and we’ll go to this other old Cherokee town. So we take a left instead of a right and end up going up this hill. There’s no signage. We saw no houses, no people, no cars, and it was like the forest just kept moving in on us. The roads got skinnier, the trees were hanging over and touching.

I’ve been in every state, 72 Indian reservations, and I don’t get scared very often. But it just got stranger and more like a fairy tale coming into animation or something. I don’t think we ever reached the top of that mountain, it got steeper and skinnier and scarier. It felt like the land and the roads were taking over and we were just kind of coasting along and maybe shouldn’t be there. We finally just stopped and kept looking at the map, and looking at each other. We just turned around and left like our pants were on fire. It was too scary.

There were multiple stages of the digital-map takeover. MapQuest launched in 1996 as a web service, and briefly enjoyed status as a verb—“I’m going to MapQuest directions to the party”—in the era when people would look up directions at home, print them out, and take them on their journey.

“I’m right on that edge where I experienced that,” Krzykowski told me. “Writing things down on a Post-it note and putting it in your wallet.”

But in the mid-2000s, MapQuest fell out of favor. Google Maps launched in 2005, and became available on mobile in 2007. You know how that worked out. (Although, incredibly, MapQuest still exists—and it’s profitable.)

“Now, I barely think about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there,” Krzykowski says. “I’ve just completely off-loaded that task.”

But that off-loading creates new ways for people to get lost. Perhaps people are less likely to get turned around on their everyday travels than they once were, but GPS isn’t perfect. Maps might not be updated with construction areas, for example, and location tracking can be laggy. How many times have you spun around on a street corner staring at your phone, trying to orient Google Maps’ little blue “you are here” dot?

Andy Lee, 42, the vice president and managing director of Asia/Pacific at Mapbox, a digital mapping company

I was leaving a meeting in Jakarta, and I gave myself two hours to go from downtown to the main international airport. I used a popular ride-sharing app. First, it took him about 30 minutes to get to me. On the map it looked like he was super close. But there was so much heavy traffic in downtown Jakarta, and when he made a wrong turn, he basically had to go half a mile, and then make a U-turn and come all the way back.

Then we go on the roads and it was apparent that the driver doesn’t often go to the airport, and so he wasn’t sure exactly how to go. He missed a turn because he was relying on navigation as well, and just interpreted it incorrectly.

We ended up in this side village off the highway. By the time we got back on, I realized that Jakarta has a new airport, and that terminal was actually half a mile away from the other terminal. The app will do a very quick auto-complete—I typed in CGK ,which is the code for the Jakarta airport, and I quickly selected it, but I didn’t realize it had picked the brand-new airport. So the driver got me to the new airport and then I realized that’s not the terminal I need.

We ended up on a dirt road, trying to get through this construction site, because the two airports weren’t perfectly connected yet. He literally was driving me through a construction site. I kept looking at my map and freaking out. The closest I could get is the parking lot of terminal one. There was still traffic all the way to the airport. I could continue to [try to] go there, or I could run through the parking lot to cut through the traffic, lugging my little suitcase with me. I opted to get out of the car and run through a parking lot. Bear in mind I was dressed for a meeting, not dressed to go lugging a four-wheel suitcase and a backpack. As a result of this little adventure through Jakarta, I missed my flight.

Even in a world that is more mapped than ever, maps can still betray you. Or, perhaps, people often disorient themselves through overreliance on these maps. “At the end of the day, with all this technology, global positioning, it’s still up to human judgment,” Lee says. “A map is still subject to human interpretation.”

Plus, GPS doesn’t reach every nook and cranny of the world. Not yet. There are still places where cell signal is poor, where maps have little detail.

“I live in Cherokee county. At my house, cellphones don’t work. On most reservations, there’s no cell coverage,” Kingfisher says. “When you get onto dirt roads, a lot of them just don’t show up on the map. That’s why I love rural America. Thank God there’s wild places.”

Even in more populated areas, there are places too small or detailed for digital maps to reach, but where a body can still get turned around, like parks, or buildings:

Katharine Harmon, 57, the author of You Are Here and The Map as Art

In the very northwest corner of Washington state are some islands, the San Juan Islands, and there’s an island called Lopez Island where I spend a lot of time. And in the center of that island is a forest. It sounds like a fairy tale. This forest is well-known on the island, people get lost there a lot, and at some point they even put up some trail signs with these little symbols about which trail is the lightning bolt trail and which trail is the mountain trail and so on, but it didn’t help. People still get lost there. So sometimes if I’m going to go for a run or go for a hike there, I’ll say to my family, “Okay, I’m going to get lost!” And they know exactly where I’m going.

But one of the times I was with a friend there, we went late in the afternoon and [got lost, and] I think we were there probably for three or four hours. We came out in the pitch black, and had to flag down a car to take us home because we were just absolutely exhausted. We didn’t even want to walk home. We [had] started running. It wasn’t so much that we were panicked, but it was starting to set in a bit. I think when you get lost and you're with somebody else, one person plays the role of being the one who keeps things lighthearted and laughing because the other one is on the edge of losing it. That’s my experience. I think it’s really different when you’re lost with another person versus when you’re lost alone. Because when you’re lost alone your mind has to play both roles somehow.

Matilda Kreider, 19, a political-communication student at George Washington University

In October I was interning for the Wilderness Society, so I was dropping off papers in the Senate offices, in the Russell office building. It’s a pretty complex building—it’s like a polygon with a courtyard at the center. So, a lot of hallways. And there are parts where you have to take an elevator up, get on another elevator and then go down just to keep walking on the same hallway.

I had finished my errand, but then I did another lap and realized I had passed Marco Rubio’s office again. And of course, that’s of note. That’s when I realized I’d been walking for a while and hadn’t seen an exit.

It was a situation where a map’s not going to help me because I’m inside a building. And I was too embarrassed to go into a senator’s office and be like “Could you help me find an exit?” I finally found a courtyard—it’s been an hour at this point—and I saw a door at the other side of the courtyard. I’m thinking, “Thank God, this must be an open courtyard.” I walk through it and all of a sudden I’m back inside the building again, because the courtyard’s in the middle. So I wandered and wandered and then found a security guard and said “I need help.” At this point I was laughing at myself because I’d been there an hour longer than I was supposed to be. But I escaped.

It feels to me less like digital maps are erasing the experience of being lost, and more like they are pushing it to the extreme ends of a spectrum, and flattening out the middle. There are the small ways of being lost that maps can’t help, and then there are the grand ways, which seem often to happen when people are traveling, and don’t have access to maps on their phone.

Chris Devers, a 41-year-old in Somerville, Massachusetts, who works in IT

This wasn’t necessarily the last time but it was the most memorable time. It would’ve been November of 2005. My wife and I were in Europe, and we were driving to Salzburg, Austria, trying to find our hotel for the night.

I speak a little bit of German, but not really, and she doesn’t speak any. I’m driving, she’s navigating, looking at the map on paper. We’re having trouble getting oriented on the map, and we keep going in circles. And it's been a while. Finally I’m like, “Where are you having us go, I don't understand, we keep going on the same street. And she’s like, “Well there seems to be something important up here.” We were following big prominent, signs, with big helpful arrows, saying go toward “Einbahnstraße.” And I’m like, “Einbahnstraße?” That means “one-way street”!

Pete Collard, 46, an architecture Ph.D. student in London

The last time was when I was in Baikonur in 2012. It’s a Russian town in the middle of the Kazakhstan desert. I was on a research trip with an architectural school; we were visiting some ex–Soviet Union industrial spaces. We’d been to Chernobyl, and we were going to Baikonur to go and see a rocket launch. The town was built for one purpose which was to send rockets up. It’s where Yuri Gagarin, all the Sputniks and everything went up from. So everything was built at the same time and everything looks the same and it’s also in the same condition of decay.

We arrived in the evening, and in the spirit of being in Russia, we were trying vodka and various other things. To the point that I missed the wake-up call the next morning, and everybody left to go on an excursion. I thought, that’s okay, I’ll go and explore the town on my own. But after a while I got a bit confused about my bearings because, as I said, everything looked exactly the same. And I didn’t see many people about. I had a phone, probably had an iPhone at that stage, but it wasn’t connecting to anything.

I got a bit paranoid. As a British citizen walking around what is still effectively a semi-military town, we had to get lots of permits and things to be there. If I did get picked up by the police or something, I didn’t speak any Russian, I couldn’t really explain where my friends were, couldn’t even remember where my hostel was. It was the middle of summer as well, so it’s baking hot. It was a Kafkaesque kind of experience.

It got to the point where I was thinking if I find our bus I will recognize the bus. So as I was walking around, I was looking for a white bus. It was almost like looking for a white rabbit or something, in Alice in Wonderland. After wandering around all day, by chance I found the rest of the group and the bus, they were swimming down by the river, looked quite surprised that I was so confused and desperately pleased to see them.

Even though it can be stressful, there’s still a romanticism attached to the idea of getting lost while traveling—the possibility of happy accidents, unplanned discoveries, and connections with strangers. Many people have bemoaned the death of this experience at the hands of smartphones and their maps, noting with regret that travelers now “choose efficiency at the expense of discovery,” as Stephanie Rosenbloom put it in The New York Times.

“Part of the fun of going to new places is getting lost sometimes,” Collard says. “The city sometimes reveals itself to you. But only if you’re willing to let it do it. You have to open up a bit and perhaps put your phone away.”

There is some magic in these moments. I do treasure the memory of my Big Mac–hunting guardian angel. But to whatever degree digital maps kill discovery (and there’s no way it’s 100 percent), they also provide a sense of safety and autonomy to people—especially women—as they move through unfamiliar environments.

Sommer Mathis, 38, the editor in chief of Atlas Obscura

I was 19 years old and this would be 1999, so long before I ever had a smartphone. I had been doing a study-abroad program for the summer in Paris, and my older sister decided to come visit me for a week and we ended up going to Amsterdam for the weekend together And then as soon as we got there, she came down with terrible bug and had a fever and really couldn’t do anything. She needed to stay in bed. But I was very excited to go explore the city. So one night I just left her in the hotel and went out on my own. Being that age and being American, I was not super used to being able to go to bars. And of course, also being in Amsterdam, I ended up being offered some marijuana. I had a little bit, and then I decided to take a walk. It’s maybe 9 p.m. or something at this point.

There are canals and there are a lot of little winding streets. A lot of the streets kind of look the same. At some point I realized that A) I had no idea where I was, and B) that I was inebriated, which was not helping. So I ended up stopping into some other bar and had a beer and this guy who was also sitting at the bar started chatting me up. I was trying to play it cool but very nervous and out of sorts. So this guy offers to buy me a beer and I’m like “I don’t know,” and then he kind of starts chiding me about not being friendly. I finally just explained to him, “I’m a little bit stoned and I’ve lost my way and I don’t know how to get back to my hotel.” And he’s like, “What hotel are you staying in?”

At this point I have a choice to make. I just decided that I needed help and used my best instincts about this person. So I told him what hotel I was staying in and he was like, “No problem, I know where that is. I’m walking in that direction, I will walk you back there.” And I’m like, “Okay.” I really felt totally helpless. But the whole time he’s walking me back to my hotel, I’m really kicking myself, like, “This is a ridiculous decision to make, I should never have done this.” But sure enough, he absolutely just walked me straight back to my hotel. But I remember that I didn’t know what was going to happen when we got back to the hotel, and was just very relieved that nothing happened.

“I can sympathize with that romantic notion that wandering in an unfamiliar place is great because you never know what you might stumble on,” Mathis says. “But in practical terms, as a woman who often is out walking alone, I do have my guard up. I have my city face on. And the technology that we have now does make me feel like I can be self-sufficient almost anywhere. And that’s something I value.”

Tausha Cowan, a 32-year-old communications manager and travel blogger at The Globe Getter, says she uses Google Maps “religiously” while traveling. If she suspects that somewhere she’s visiting won’t have internet service, she downloads offline maps.

“I’m all for wandering,” she says. “But what I can say for myself is it wasn’t a pleasant experience to feel truly lost. I’m definitely a firm believer in sometimes going off of a route, but maybe doing it with some safeguards, so if you feel like you’re in an uncomfortable situation, you have a way to get out quickly.”

There are many ways to be lost. Some have declined due to technology; others are newly born. But in every situation, to be lost is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is frightening, often dangerous, but it also breeds connection—with people, and with places. The maps people carry in their pockets can be a barrier to that connection, but they are also safety nets. And it’s easier to take a leap if you know there’s something at the bottom to catch you.