Travel by Approximation: A Virtual Road Trip

Jenny Odell's face, wearing sunglasses, seen in her rearview mirror, with Street VIew of a freeway photoshopped behind the windshield A hand opening a landscape-orientation book with black pages and a series of photos, most prominently one of Jenny Odell photoshopped into Google Street View near Monument Valley. The text is a mix of white, green, and blue colors.

Travel by Approximation is the record of a trip I made across the United States by way of the internet. It began as something loosely based on a real trip I had wanted to take but never had, but soon took its own, much more reckless form. In order to travel, I made use of any sources of information I could find online, relying espeically on Google Street View, photo databases (Panoramio, Picasa, Flickr), review sites (Yelp, TripAdvisor, CitySearch, Insider Pages), and virtual tours of monuments, restaurants, hotels, etc. For one real year—almost two virtual months—I transported myself into one place after another, both by writing a travel narrative and by using Photoshop to integrate myself into photos I found online.

I set several parameters for this trip in order to preserve a sense of spatial wandering as well as the integrity of my source information:

  1. I had to find things by wandering on Google Maps before researching them further on other sites (as opposed to looking up a list of attractions for a given city, then traveling to one of those destinations).
  2. I could not digitally alter the photos I put myself into; I could only alter the photo of myself to match the source photo.
  3. Each day of the trip was physically feasible, in terms of gas, food, safety, and a place to stay, as well as the number of miles or hours driven.
  4. Every piece of information (photos, videos, articles, websites, online books) would be cited at the end of this book.

Some moments along the way:

View from inside my car, with my face visible in the rearview mirror. Outside hte windshield is Google Street View of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Screenshot of Street View in Santa Barbara showing a person casually walking and chatting with someone in a lizard costume
Jenny Odell photoshopped into Google Street View of a Generals Highway in a mountainous area
Jenny Odell photoshopped into a low-resolution photograph of a hotel lobby interior with a fireplace
Jenny Odell appearing to take a selfie, wearing warm clothes, photoshopped into Street View of a snowy desert area
Jenny Odell inside her car turning right, with Street View of a gas station photoshopped outside the car windows
Jenny Odell photoshopped into a camping tent inside a window that says: See it in Action: Minibus 22 and 23 Tents
Screenshot of Street View of a remote desert road on which someone has spelled out in rocks: I Heart Meth
Interior of the office for a clown-themed motel, with many framed images of clowns on the wooden walls
Screenshot of a glitch in Google Street View where the whole screen is black with purplish white bars. My rearview mirror is photoshopped in and you can see Jenny Odell's freaked out face
Jenny Odell appearing to take a selfie with Street View of mountains and a lake photoshopped into the background
Jenny Odell photoshopped so that she appears to be writing at a desk inside the window of a virtual tour for a motel
Jenny Odell appearing to take a selfie in Street View of Las Vegas at night
Jenny Odell appearing to sit awkwardly and alone at a dinner table inside the window for a virtual tour of the Valentino Restaurant at the Venetian in Las Vegas
Jenny Odell seen from the back, photoshopped into the outskirts of Las Vegas, facing the mountains
Three men flexing their muscles and smiling on a bridge
Jenny Odell wearing sunglasses and smiling, photoshopped into Street View of a rocky desert area
Jenny Odell photoshopped into a bed and breakfast canopy bed, appearing to write in her journal
Jenny Odell leaning against her car. Both she and the car have been photoshopped into a desert area.
Screenshot of forum posts from 2008 in which people discuss trying to visit Area 51. One person asks, If I talk to the cammo dudes will they talk back to me or just kill me? Someone answers, They will probably just ignore you. I got within 10-12 feet of their truck on a hill right by the front gates, and we were waving and saying hey, but they just flipped down their visors and looked at us through binoculars. So, as long as your'e on the right side of the border, there should be minimal carnage.
Jenny Odell photoshopped into Street View of a building being constructed in Phoenix, Arizona
Jenny Odell photoshopped in front of a restaurant called Pita Pit in Arizona. A pitz from the restaurant's website has been photoshopped into her hands and she is pretending to eat it.
Jenny Odell, seen from the back, photoshopped into Street View of a forest in Utah
Street View of a billboard with a businessman smiling and large text that says
Jenny Odell, wearing a backpack and looking ambivalent, photoshopped outside of a compound in a fundamentalist religious area of Utah
Jenny Odell in her car, with a bridge and canyon photoshopped outside the car windows, and Street View of the road photoshopped into the rearview and side mirrors
Jenny Odell and a false shadow photoshopped onto a snowy cliff in Utah
Street View in Boulder, Colorado showing people tubing in a river
Jenny Odell inside the window for a virtual tour of a lounge and bar
Screen shot from a Youtube video of people walking in Denver, overlaid with bright green text that says, Now a Walk and Showing of People
Screen shot from a Youtube video of people walking in Denver
Screen shot from a Youtube video of people walking in Denver
Jenny Odell, standing awkwardly, photoshopped into a barren area of Nebraska
Blurry, zoomed in screenshot of Street View in Lincoln, Nebraska, showing a statue of a man sitting on a bench
A YouTube video showing the same statue of the man on a bench, but closer up and in more detail
Screeshot of Google Maps showing a user-contributed photo of a sign welcoming someone to Missouri
Jenny Odell photoshopped into Street View of Perry State Park in Kansas, with light showing through the trees
Screenshot of a one-star review of Skrivin Hilton Hotel Oklahoma City that abruptly stops midsentence. Its title is: WHO CARES? RIGHT? The rest of it reads: As a 10 year Hilton Honors Reward customer and a dedicated - loyal patron, I have to say that the one thing that chaps me the most in the business world is to leave several messages for a manager and NOT get a return phone call. I can accept a return phone call by the beginning of the following day but
Jenny Odell inside her car, sipping iced coffee, with Street View photoshopped behind the car windows and showing a rural store called Boot Outlet
Screenshot of Google Maps user-contributed photo of a rectangular, cement-lined pond. The photo is titled: Branch Davidian Compound
Jenny Odell photoshopped so that she appears to be sitting at a bar with low light
Jenny Odell with her arms crossed photoshopped in front of Street View of a restaurant called Juan in a Million
People are gathered around an enormous man-shaped mold, filled with steaming dough. They are making the world's largest gingerbread man
Screenshot of the local TV listings in Baton Rouge
Screenshot of a glitch in Street View that makes the whole screen a gradient of pink to white
Jenny Odell, seen from the back, photoshopped at a rock-lined water's edge in Louisiana
Screenshot of Google Street View of the front yard of a house in Florida, where the ground is covered entirely in sand, a For Sale sign blows in the wind, and a trash bin has been knocked over
Screenshot of Street View of river rapids in Georgia seen from a bridge
Screenshot of online comments from 2009, not showing what the comments are on. One says: It's in Georgia what do you expect? The other says: my mother went there and she says the place is crawling with water snakes
Jenny Odell with her hair in a towel, applying facial lotion, photoshopped into the bathroom in a hotel advertisement saying: Enhance your stay with a variety of special touches.
Jenny Odell looking slightly freaked out, photoshopped into the Coca Cola Museum in Georgia
Jenny Odell photoshopped so that she appears to be walking down a forested road with fall colors in Street View of Jacks Ridge, Georgia
Jenny Odell's face in her rearview mirror, squinting at light, photoshopped in front of Street View of a road in Tennessee where the sun is coming directly at the camera
Jenny Odell with her face in her hand photoshopped into a photo of a crashed car that is the same model as her car in the other photos

The countless images and narratives I traversed in this project were blurry, incomplete, or anonymous, suggesting the profusion as well as the flatness and deficiency of my virtual experience. But this same deficiency created a space that could only be filled in by my imagination. It was a narrating viewpoint, infused with my own subjectivity, history, and memory, that allowed me not just to apprehend a huge amount of data in a (humanly) coherent way, but also to try and re-create meaning from flatness. The feelings of discovery, novelty, fear, and exhilaration that I encountered along the way sometimes seemed as real as any I had ever had. At the end of a virtual experience of real places, I was left with real memories of virtual experiences.

This trip also reflects a specific period of time: I traveled from March 2009 to March 2010, but even before the trip ended, the places I had visited were already changing or disappearing, physically and virtually. Shortly after I passed through it, the Southwest was updated on Google Street View, so that many of the sights I remember seeing are no longer accessible. I also crossed a section of the Hoover Dam that shortly thereafter became unavailable on Street View. Meanwhile, a hotel I stayed at on Route 66 has since closed its doors, and the owners of the sacred white buffalo I visited in Flagstaff were evicted from their ranch. Even the UI elements of Street View and YouTube in my screen shots appear historical now.

Since the book relied so heavily on quotation, paraphrasing, and re-purposed information, I had to devise something more than the ordinary system of quotation. In the book, text in blue is quoted verbatim from a speaking agent (usually a reviewer or a journalist) as speech or dialogue, while all other referential material is quoted in green. This means that any speaking quotations in green are paraphrases of, quoted phrases from, or fictional dialogue based on information from an outside source. Sources were cited at the end of the book.

Below are pages 97-98, in which I brave the tourist-masses of the Grand Canyon. In the first page, I'm encountering a guy who claims (on TripAdvisor) that "the thing with the Grand Canyon is... once you've seen it, well, you've seen it." (Those are his bored kids in the photos.) On the next page are user photos all geotagged at the same exact spot on Google Maps, a lookout point just off the main road. In the text, I am musing on the saying that you could fill the Grand Canyon with photos of the Grand Canyon.

Two facing pages from the Travel by Approximation book. One shows Jenny Odell photoshopped so she seems to be walking through a parking lot in the Grand Canyon, and the other has a grid of user-contributed photos of the Grand Canyon. Both pages contain fictional text about Jenny Odell visiting that spot.

A younger me talks a little bit about Travel by Approximation in the video below: