At Random: Technology builds bridges on travels

As I’ve been reminded this summer while rereading “Mornings on Horseback,” President Theodore Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for travel was a family tradition. David McCullough’s book about Roosevelt’s youth mentions that Roosevelt’s uncle, Robert Roosevelt, had some passionate opinions about travel, too.

Don’t focus on the scenery when you leave home, Robert suggested in 1851. Going somewhere else, he wrote, meant the chance “to see men. To enlarge your mind, which will never be enlarged by looking at a large hill, but by conversing with, and seeing the bent of the minds of other people.”

A nice idea, yet I wondered: In our age, when technology makes it easier to travel without engaging another human soul, is the kind of connection that Robert celebrated pretty much a thing of the past?

I mulled over all of this in a recent opinion piece for The Boston Globe, noting that tourism these days can seem like an escape from society rather than an embrace of it.

Thanks to GPS navigation, we no longer have to stop and ask for directions when we travel. “Kiosk check-ins at airports and hotels limit our interaction with other people, too,” I told readers. “And as we immerse ourselves in a culture of portable laptops and smartphones, ignoring fellow train and airline passengers has become the norm.”

But after writing that piece, then taking a summer road trip with my family, I remembered technology’s power to connect us with people we might not otherwise meet.

We’d been heading east all day, bound for North Carolina, stopping only at the occasional interstate exit for gas and fast food. By nightfall, we wanted a real supper. That’s when my wife shared all of this with our onboard navigation system, which directed us, with its disembodied female voice, to the Gondolier Italian restaurant in the Tennessee community of Athens.

The Gondolier, as it turns out, is a chain restaurant, too, although small enough to retain the intimate feel of its family origins, when founder Bill Sioutis opened the first one in nearby Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1974.

On this Sunday night, the tables were full. A local church group had come in for pizza, and a group of retired couples was dining behind us, their conversation brightened by the tall tales shared by those of a certain age.

A tourist can feel like a spider skittering along the top of a pond, touching its surface without ever really sensing its depth. But having our dinner within earshot of a community not our own, we felt the kind of connection that Robert Roosevelt celebrated more than a century and a half ago. All of which gives me hope that technology, so often dismissed as an alienating force in our culture, might yet be one of the best means to bring us together.

Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.