On June 19, Uday Schultz hit the road. The 19-year-old rising sophomore at Harvard decided to spend part of his summer break fulfilling a dream he has had since middle school. He was going to drive across the country. But without a car and the pandemic in full swing, he decided to do it all from his Brooklyn house. So Schultz fired up Google Street View, plugged in Seattle, and started clicking his way back home.
I have felt the pangs of pandemic-induced boredom as badly as anyone. In the World Series of Staring Contests I am currently leading my easily distracted cat in a best-of-999 series 131-49. But even I never considered “driving” across the country on Street View. Surely, I thought, Schultz had achieved some kind of Pandemic Boredom God Mode.
But Schultz is not doing this out of boredom. At least, not nearly as much as I would have expected. He’s clicking his way across the country as a sort of research project.
“I didn’t think it would be a gigantic thing I would remember forever,” Schultz told Motherboard. “But it has taken up a life of its own in that regard.”
Schultz is taking the northerly route across the country so he can tour some of the nation’s most storied industrial, transportation, and energy infrastructure, a particular passion of his. He takes frequent detours to look at grain silos, abandoned mine sites, old rail infrastructure, and anything else that happens to catch his eye. He avoids the interstate as much as possible because it’s boring. If he hits a dead zone where Street View doesn’t exist—of which there are very few—it’s easy to backtrack. He says clicking his way across the country is much faster than driving, once you get the hang of exactly where on the horizon to click. But, beware: if you click too high, Street View will inexplicably send you backwards.
After almost a month of clicking—or driving, if you will—Schultz is now about 60 miles northwest of Duluth, Minnesota. But he can’t estimate when he’ll finish the trip, because he suspects he’ll end up taking more detours in the more densely packed midwest and eastern legs of the trip.
Normally, crossing the country on Street View would obviously be less appealing than doing so in the real world, namely that you are not actually there. But that’s what makes his project so perfect for the moment. We’re all living some version of the Street View road trip, experiencing the world through whatever this screen happens to show us.
After Schultz finished telling me about some of the places he’d seen, from the Missouri River dams to the Milwaukee Road abandoned rail lines, I asked him if he feels like he’s really been to these places. He thought about it for a second. We both live in New York, and he compared clicking his way along Street View to walking around the city over the past few months. We can walk anywhere we want, but we can’t go into places. “You’re walking around this city,” Schultz said, “but you’re not able to interact with it.”
He is not physically present for, say, the dams built on Native American lands which displaced them even further from their homes and deprived them of vital water and wildlife resources, but he has now seen them.
I asked Schultz whether he’s counting this as a road trip. This provoked another thoughtful pause, which also gave me a moment to reflect on why I’m asking this college student ridiculous philosophical questions. I was asking these things partly because I desperately want to get away from all this. It’s not so much that I want to go to another physical location, but that I want to get away from what this all feels like. I am bouncing between my bed and couch and chair with maybe a jog or a bike ride in between and it all feels so empty. I want him to tell me if this Street View road trip is a substitute for the real thing because it would give me hope I can find a substitute for the things we are all missing.
Schultz won’t be going back to Harvard any time soon. The school recently announced all classes for the 2020-21 academic year will be online. I haven’t seen my colleagues in months. I’ve barely spent any time with my family. I did a few Zoom happy hours with friends when this all started, but like everyone else we never bothered to do them a second time. I attended one online comedy show where everyone gave it their all but it was just too awkward and sad, because it only reminded us of how much we’ve lost. All of these things and more have been Zoomified, which is to say they exist as a kind of Hollywood set for the lives we used to have, with all the scaffolding and signage but none of the interior and meaning. They’re poor substitutes for the real thing, just like going on a road trip without a car. We live Street View lives now, where everything is real but nothing is there.
After some discussion, we landed on the verdict that this does not count as a road trip. “Street View definitely loses you something, even if it’s just the smell of the air.” Schultz said. “Driving by a paper mill has a smell. You lose that smell.” But he thinks it’s better than nothing at all.