Google Trekker: good or bad for the outdoors?

I’m all for more people having access to the American backcountry, provided they’re prepared for it or hire people who are.

Google Trekker could help people better understand the terrain of the country’s most storied canyon when it publicizes its trail-level view of the Bright Angel – South Kaibab loop in a few months. I also believe that introducing more people to such a stunning corner of our country will help encourage interest, support and tourism. Yes, there are benefits. It certainly can’t hurt to get a lay of the land before strapping on your pack.

Or can it?

There’s no use in counting the number of pictures and books and shows and movies that have been produced about or contain imagery from the Grand Canyon. Suffice to say, there’s plenty. Even the most technologically unsound of us can visit a library and discover enough forms of media to encourage a visit or heck, even send a check to any number of organizations that help preserve the wild nature of the Colorado River’s most photographed masterpiece.

One of my fears about making even these very popular — but nonetheless stunning — trails a product of Google is that they become instantly ubiquitous, something so easy it can be put on the Internet. This stance is reflected clearly in the words of Maureen Oltrogge, head of public affairs for Grand Canyon National Park, who spoke to Outside Magazine about it, saying, “It could give you a false sense of security. This can be an unforgiving environment.”

Google Maps is meant to make things easy. Exact directions are provided from door to door and with Street View, we even know the color of the door knob. No doubt such a form of proactive bread-crumbing is convenient for getting across unfamiliar cities or checking out the big house your sister just bought.

What automated mapping doesn’t do is detail all the arbitrary hazards along the way. The red-light runners , the texters and the faulty street lights.

But in the Grand Canyon, the potholes are a lot deeper.

I’m willing to confess that some of this tech-angst comes from a disdain for our increasing reliance on electronic navigation. Above my desk sits a 48” laminated Imus Geographics map of the United States. I love knowing where every place is in relation to other places. I want the big picture of where I want to be. I just can’t fathom having it all condensed down to a 4” screen of only what lies directly ahead of me. I want to be surprised by the backdrop and intimidated by the discovery of new places. If I’m staring at a mobile service-dependent, finger-scrollable square of a wilderness like the Grand Canyon, then well, where in the hell is the drama of letting the wilderness unfold as you go?

Let’s not forget the commercial advantages to Google’s capturing of the canyon’s trails. Since the banana yuccas and century plants and Utah junipers will be on camera, they become content around which Google can sell ads. And since the search giant’s organic search algorithms have become increasingly complex to unravel, companies just spend money on ads to bypass the confusion. Don’t think Google doesn’t know this. After all, it knows everything.

Then again, maybe GoPro and social media has already done what I think Trekker may do. Helmet-mounted cameras have made slabby, backcountry powder stashes seem as safe as a McDonald’s ball crawl (lice and flu germs notwithstanding) and Mavericks into just another tough paddle out. So maybe Google is already behind and I’m complaining about the inevitable, like wolf delisting and Nancy Pelosi revealing herself as an undead Wiccan demon.

It probably won’t be so bad, I guess, to have the trails mapped so diligently. Augmented reality could help identify rock layers and flora, and even some of the temples and buttes. That would be cool.

What do you think, is trail-level mapping of the backcountry a good thing? Or is broadband best used for Gangnam Style parodies and outdoor blogs?

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