Home, Home on the Web

I'm not really writing this story from Westcliffe, Colorado. I'm only there digitally, through the magic of Google Maps Street View.

Westcliffe is a small town in the Wet Mountain Valley, beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There's a main street with a few blocks of businesses, oddly named Silver Cliff Ave., after the neighboring town. The 463 residents of Westcliffe, some of them ranchers, are literally home on the range. It's about 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) above sea level, with rodeos and pickup trucks and big homesteads.

As you can imagine, part of me wishes I were there. I made several summer trips to the area in the 1990s, when my parents had a cabin outside town. Yes, there are retirees and summer residents with vacation homes around Westcliffe, drawn by the jaw-dropping natural beauty of the area. Westcliffe isn't an untouched idyll by any means. It even has some broadband service.

But when I found out that Street View had dramatically increased its coverage of America's byways, I immediately looked for Westcliffe and then was instantly dismayed when I found it. It feels wrong, somehow, that this isolated little town is in the ever-growing grasp of Google -- documented, catalogued, and searchable.

I have no problem with Google Maps Street View, per se. A database of large, head-on photographs of each address on a map is an obvious navigation tool, and I often rely on it when I'm going places in the Bay Area. After all, if you can see where you're going ahead of time, finding it is that much easier.

Now that Street View is on my iPhone, the service is even more useful and fun. On Thanksgiving, I was the hit of the party as some relatives saw Street View for the first time and navigated the virtual real world in awe. Sure, the Web already has pictures of a lot of businesses and some homes, but when you can virtually drive down a street, it feels more like a place than a picture. This is a genuine phenomenon, and everyone wants to see the areas they know as well as ones they're just curious about. So it's about time the coverage expanded beyond a few big cities and their suburbs.

Street View debuted last year with just a few cities, and now has a better coverage map than some cellular companies. It's made up of pictures shot by special cameras mounted on top of cars. My own apartment in San Francisco has been on Street View for months, with my car in front of it, and that never bothered me. I know people here who have been caught in the act of standing in front of their houses, sometimes eerily blurred out of the picture, sometimes not. They didn't mind. It's part of living in the belly of the digital beast, so to speak.

But Westcliffe always felt like a place set apart from the world of feature upgrades and Web 2.0. Even from the nearest airport served by an airline, it was a 90-minute drive, mostly on two-lane highways. There was a shortcut by gravel road. Looking at Westcliffe on Street View, I feel as if Google's car and camera have barged in on a private place.

For people who live there, it's a different matter. Kathy Reis, the town clerk, was thrilled to learn that Westcliffe is on Street View. The town thrives largely on tourism, she said, and Street View is one more way to show off the local scenery to potential tourists.

What bothers me is that all I had was my memories of Westcliffe, and now Google remembers it for me. Not the way my own old pictures do, taken on film and tucked away in boxes, reminding me of a particular morning or afternoon when I took them, but just robotically.

Street View shows me what Westcliffe looks like now, with half a dozen things that look slightly unfamiliar, and inevitably it will be updated as more things change. In fact, looking at Street View reminds me that I'm not there, and haven't been there since 2002. Thanks to Google Maps Street View, my memories aren't old anymore, they're just out of date.

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