Driving vacations when I was growing up always had an element of stress. Would our gas-guzzling V-8 Chevy station wagon make it to the next service station, or would we end up riding on empty through Midwestern cornfields? With my mom as navigator — alternating between giving running commentary on the rolling hills and white birch trees and glancing at the folding AAA map — we’d inevitably miss a critical turnoff, leading to cursing from my dad and a multi-mile detour to right the ship.
I thought about those days last week as my partner Liz and I cruised in our hybrid Ford from New York to Maine. The only Running on Empty we thought about was the Jackson Browne version we sang along to on our Spotify playlist. We could have easily managed the 278.3-mile trip on a single tank of Mobil regular (though we couldn’t resist filling up on that cheap Rt. 1 Massachusetts gas).
And navigation? Google Maps pretty much does everything but drive the car these days — something I wish my parents had been able to experience — and 10 years from now, it may be doing that, too. We followed Google’s route choices, making adjustments as the time to destination changed according to traffic conditions. When we strayed off course for a tourist jaunt, Google made things right again. Yes, we’re spoiled.
With each of us having unlimited data plans for our phones, we were in great shape to enjoy our favorite entertainment on the road. Most important for me was having the data to watch the St. Louis Cardinals win their 17th straight to snare the remaining Wild Card spot in the National League, while reclining on a chaise on a perfect 70-degree day in Ogunquit, Maine. For Liz, it was holding up her end for her team in Airport City and browsing TikTok videos.
It was also a working vacation for Liz. Some of her clients didn’t even know she was on vacation because in the new hybrid work age, it doesn’t matter where she is. She got her weekly requirements in, edited a speech and took on additional assignments for the month. That can be a blessing and a curse on holiday. She couldn’t turn off the Slack channel.
We loved how we could take our connected life with us. I gave Liz a Roku Streaming Stick+ for her birthday so we could keep up with the exploits of Ted Lasso, Raymond Reddington and Harry Bosch during the week and catch the most recent episode of the new Morning Show season.
That involved a small amount of agita during setup — not what you want to feel on your week off. We had to plug in several email addresses trying to figure out which one of us the Roku account belongs to, plug in codes and then scan a QR code for Apple TV. It turned out to be smoother than we thought it would be and once in, we were good to go for the rest of the trip.
We spent the Maine days trekking the Marginal Way in Ogunquit, enjoying the beach in York and chowing down on chowder in Kennebunkport, then catching our favorite shows via Roku at night with a super sharp picture. I pitied the guest that had to suffer the SD cable feed that looked so last millennium. Thinking back to old family vacations, it was hard to imagine how we entertained ourselves after a day of sun and swim. On this trip, after excellent dinners, lobster mostly, we had the full connected experience.
Until we arrived at Freeport, Maine, which is apparently the technology black hole of the East Coast. It was far from our first trip to the home of L.L. Bean, but it was the first time we chose to overnight there. As we pulled off Rt. 1 into Freeport, we expected Google to find our hotel, just as it steered us from Manhattan to Maine.
But when we reached town, we lost our connection to the outside world. We thought we knew where the Hilton was but found a train depot there instead. Each of us took to our phones but had no Wi-Fi and no cell service. We had to drive several blocks away from the center of town to locate the hotel on a Google map.
When we went to L.L. Bean’s flagship store, Liz and I went our separate ways, assuming we’d text each other when we were ready to leave. Whoops, no cell signal inside the store. Why would a store block phone service? What if I were a mother trying to keep tabs on a 12-year-old? Did they want to keep me from price shopping? Did they want to make sure I didn’t check the weather while shopping? Eventually, we caught up with each other.
We also had trouble communicating with the outside world when we had dinner at a nearby restaurant. When we asked the bartender for the Wi-Fi password, she shook her head and said it was very spotty but we could try. We gave up when amazing takeout fried seafood platters appeared. It all worked out.
Even our hotel was stuck in a tech warp. The ginormous TV in the living room had an HDMI port, but its remote had no way to switch sources. So we downsized to Liz’s 13-inch laptop to watch TV via Roku, balancing shrimp and clams between us. The remote did have a Room Control button, but that was a press to nowhere.
At our cool hotel in Boston later in the week, we were able to fire up the Roku just fine, and we checked out, noncontact-style, on-screen, which was a nice time-saver. The room’s TV’s remote also had a Room Control button that led nowhere. That made me think of Universal Electronics earnings calls, where I’ve heard the CEO talk about future smart home functionality in the hospitality market. Remote-controlled hotel locks and lights seem like a stretch to me, especially when some hotels can’t get past SD cable. We’ll see.
On our last day, we drove over to Cambridge to soak up some smarts and visit the Harvard Book Store. When we saw a parking spot by Hahvahd Yahd, what could we do but pahk the cah? That required an app download for Passport Mobile Parking, which I had to link to my credit card. It was easy enough to do, and it gave us two hours of worry- and quarter-free parking, but I already had a different parking meter app. I wish the parking app companies would consolidate the way EZPass did so we could get by with one app.
Our return trip to New York involved a lot of route changes: Our I-90 to I-84 to I-684 route was scrapped when Google showed the way to the Merritt Pkwy in Connecticut instead, shaving a half hour or more off our trip.
That was good because we lost about 20 minutes trying to leave Beantown. I had flashbacks to my mom’s “uh ohs” and my dad’s cursing as we tried to get back on course and get out of town. Even Google had trouble keeping up with the twisty turns and stealth signage that require split-second decisions in downtown Boston. There are some things that maps — virtual or paper — just can’t solve.