Michelle Martin

Finding the way

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Teresa and I have been spending a lot of time playing a computer game that plops you, the player, somewhere that has been documented by Google and challenges you to explore the area and figure out where you are on a map.

It’s not new or trendy, but it’s something we can play together, as a team. Even better, she can control the cursor, or, in a sense, drive on these virtual trips.

You can set it to put you anywhere on earth — or at least anywhere that Google Street View exists — or just famous places, or just the United States, or even just Chicago. The bigger the map, the more leeway you get on your final guess: On a U.S. map, you have to place your pin within a few dozen yards of where the initial photo was taken for full credit; on a Chicago map, you have to be within a few feet.

When Teresa and I play together, we usually do a U.S. map, and our experience has taught us several things:

l Signs are your friend. Road signs identifying interstates and U.S. highways are gold, but some states use a special shape on their state highway signs which can be tremendously helpful. But even real estate signs can provide information like area codes, residential street names can offer clues to the area and advertisements give local flavor. Advertisements featuring area sports teams can really help narrow down which urban area you’re in.

l A lot of the United States is really sparsely populated. Teresa groans every time the initial picture comes up and we’re on a two-lane road with maybe one driveway and one house, and no way of telling how far we’ll have to go to find anything else.

l Look around you. All the way around you. You always open the picture facing north, and sometimes there’s nothing there, but there’s an intersection, or at least a road sign, just behind you. When you do start moving, make sure to know which direction you’re going.

l Some states just don’t seem to like installing a lot of signs. Looking at you, Idaho.

l Look for clues in the environment. Florida is flat and often has palm trees. Mountains in Colorado look different from mountains in Vermont. The dirt in the Southeast is more red than the dirt in the Midwest, which is more dark brown or black.

l Notice the beauty around you. Because you’re traveling through Google Street View, and different stretches of road are photographed at different times, you can jump time in a single click of the mouse, going from summer to winter or sunshine to rain and back again. See how changes in season or weather can make the same place look entirely new.

All these lessons apply far beyond playing map games. Feeling lost? Take a good look around you, in all directions. What do you find that can help you figure out where you are or where you came from? What clues are there to help you figure out which direction to move? Which signs are helpful?

If you make a wrong turn and hit a dead end, you can always go back and try a different way. No matter what, though, take time to appreciate the journey and the beauty of the world you live in.


  • family life