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Armchair road trips

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geoguessr_thumbAlready counting the days before your next three-day weekend? While you’re plotting your escape, you can take seemingly limitless virtual road trips thanks to GeoGuessr, the latest, greatest time-waster on the Internet.

A mash-up of Google street views and The Dish’s View From Your Window, GeoGuessr teases you with idyllic seashores, winding forest roads and desolate, dry landscapes that look more Martian than terrestrial. (That’s the Outback, not a crater on the Red Planet.) 

The rules are simple: The closer you are to the right location, the more points you get.

It’s a big world out there, but the game seems to gravitate toward only parts of Google maps. Answers keep returning you to the hinterlands of Canada, the interior of Russia, the beaches of Brazil, the streets of Mexico, the Australian bush.

Unlike other online games, there can be poignant moments when you realize what the answer must be and a feel a shiver of recognition. Strange empty lots close to the water, some marked with teddy bears and flowers? A Japanese village erased by the 2011 tsunami. Wide open fields on a rural highway are minutes away from Moore, Okla, and the wrath of the recent tornado. Yekaterinburg? Where the last czar and his children were executed and buried. 

Hint: If the country is too remote for Google street view, it’s not in the game. So a seaside town under a too-bright sun with German architecture is definitely not Swakopmund, Namibia.

To learn about the Teutonic influence in such a remote spot, you’ll have to travel the old-fashioned way: by plane, boat or book.

Paul Theroux takes us with him on what he insists will be his valedictory African safari in The Last Train to Zona Verde. At 72, he can’t imagine again risking his life — or digestive tract — to traipse around parts if not unknown then not understood. I hope he’s wrong, that the misanthrope in him will again feel the need to get away from it all, from the dinner parties and deadlines, from phones and the Internet.

Peter Matthiesson in The Snow Leopard tells of a harrowing, death-defying experience on a steep mountain. For his companion, the biologist George Schaller, it was exhilarating: the first interesting bit of trail they’d seen.

Theroux is like Schaller, challenging his fellow-travellers — whether or not they are communists — “ready to suffer the effects” of his curiosity.

– M.S. Scully

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