Where There’s No Distance or Gravity

The more digital we become, the less human we remain.

I had been in Los Angeles only a few times in my life before the October day in 1987 when I drove down from our home in the Bay Area with my teenage son to visit family. The air was unusually clear as we started our drive back north, and soon the San Gabriel Mountains—Los Angeles' own Alps (you can ski there!)—loomed over the region like a crenelated battlement, as if protecting its inhabitants from cultures and climates that might invade from the north. So, on impulse, I decided to drive up to Mount Wilson, the only crest in the range with a paved road to the top.

I could see from the maps I had already studied that the drive was an easy one. Our destination also was easily spotted from below: a long, almost flat ridge topped by the white domes of Mount Wilson Observatory (where Hubble observed the universe expanding) and a bristle of towers radiating nearly all the area's FM and TV signals. The site was legendary among broadcast engineering geeks, and I had longed to visit it ever since I was a ham radio operator as a boy in New Jersey.

After checking out the observatory and the towers, my son and I stood on a promontory next to a parking lot and surveyed the vast spread of civilization below. Soon four visiting golfers from New York came over and started asking me questions about what was where.

I answered like a veteran docent, pointing out the Rose Bowl, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Santa Catalina and other Channel Islands, the Hollywood Hills, the San Fernando Valley, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Santa Anita Park and more. When they asked where the Whittier Narrows earthquake had happened a few days before, I pointed at the Puente Hills, off to the southeast, and filled them in on what I knew about the geology there as well.

After a few minutes of this, they asked me how long I had lived there. I said all this stuff was almost as new to me as it was to them. "Then how do you know so much about it?", they asked. I told them I had studied maps of the area and refreshed my knowledge over lunch just before driving up there. They were flabbergasted. "Really?", one guy said. "You study maps?"

Indeed, I did. I had maps of all kinds and sizes at home, and the door pockets of my car bulged with AAA maps of everywhere I might drive in California. I also added local and regional Southern California maps to my mobile inventory before driving down.