Google Earth

Last week I was showing a friend how to use Google Earth on her new iPad. We “flew” back to her childhood family home, which is kind of required for an initial Google Earth experience. She showed us all of the wonderful details; the family cabin in Norway, unchanged for a hundred years, the town square, also the same as she remembered it. You can lose yourself in that particular bit of technology, especially when it’s linked to your memories, and it can feel very much like you actually just paid the place a visit.

Later that night, at home, I decided to take a little virtual stroll to my old family home. It belonged to my grandmother, and my aunt and her family lived there when I was young. I visited there at least once a month, sometimes more, until I was 8, at which point I moved in and lived with my aunt for a year. Four years later my aunt moved away and my family moved into the house.

One day, while playing out in the canebrake (oh yeah, I should mention that this takes place in Mississippi, where we had canebrake in our backyard) I found an old homemade toy of mine. It was my version of the cane that Evel Knievel carried. His was ornate, jewel-encrusted and gold-tipped. I think I’d read about it in Boy’s Life magazine. My version was a cut piece of cane with decorative bicycle handlebar tape wrapped around it. Hardly bling, but you have to use what is available to you. I guess at some point I’d lost it, or just set it down and never picked it up again, because there it was on the ground, four years later, in relatively good shape.

I’d outgrown my need to pretend to be Evel Knievel by that time, but that burst of nostalgia wasn’t lost on me. That homemade toy was a part of my past, a perfect symbol of who I used to be, what I thought about, what I did with my time. And I had left it behind to move on. I literally dropped it and picked something else up. You change a lot between ages 8 and 12, and I was holding visceral proof of that in my hand.

Two years later I left that house to move to California. The house was bought by someone else and I started a whole new life. But that house, that house — it was always there in the back of my mind. I used to have dreams about it. Still do, at times. I’ve returned to it a few times over the years to take pictures, shoot video, knock on the door and ask if I can look around. The last time I was there, about three years ago, I drove right past it without even recognizing it! The house was still basically the same, but the neighborhood — a neighborhood that remained unchanged for my entire childhood — had been expanded a bit, so my perspective was all off. Our house used to be the last one on the road before it turned into woods and farmland, but now a few more houses dotted the lane. Next to my house I saw an old shed. That shed didn’t even exist when I was there, and now it’s a legitimate “old shed,” built right in the same spot where I’d rediscovered my Evel Knievel cane.

So I’m assuming that my Google Earth visit will reveal even more change, further challenging my firmly fixed childhood memories. I punch in the address, the one that I’ll never, ever forget, and the picture on my iPad screen swirls and twists and finally zooms me down to a close up of an empty field. I do a bit of pinching and unpinching and finger dragging on the screen to see what the problem is. Yep, there’s the cross street. And there’s the old fertilizer plant. So I’m in the right place, but where is everything else? My old house is gone, replaced by nothing more than a grassy field. And so is the house next door, and across the street and all up and down the road. The entire neighborhood is gone, and in its place is nothing. If it weren’t for the remaining wisps of gravel driveway in front of where each house used to be, you’d never even know that it was once a neighborhood.

I put down the iPad and stared straight ahead. It feels like I’ve just gone looking for a childhood toy, only to find it gone forever. And it feels a bit sad, sure, but also liberating, because I’d outgrown that toy long ago. Picking it up to play with it now would be a step backwards.

But most of all, it feels like the best possible start to a new year.

Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays. More at