You can go home again (with Google Maps)

Thursday, February 08, 2007 at 7:05 PM

Posted by Mike Morton, Mac Team Technical Staff

My mother’s parents lived on a farm in New Jersey, or at least it seemed like a farm to me. To a kid from the Boston ’burbs, parking the car in a barn and drinking water from a well seemed very exotic. Best of all, my grandparents rented the part of the property across the creek to their neighbors, who grazed cows there. Wading across the creek and feeling the mud squish under my bare feet as I approached huge, terrifying (to me) cows was unlike anything I’d experienced.

Today I live in Northern New England. As a telecommuter, I travel mostly to Cambridge and Mountain View for my work on products like the Picasa Web Albums Uploader for Mac. I haven’t visited the farm in 30 years, but it stays in my mind. When I read a novel with a rural setting, I unconsciously place the characters on the porch, in the kitchen, behind the barn. Fresh corn and fresh strawberries today remind me of the garden then. Come summer where I live now, lightning bugs bring back memories of catching them on my grandparents' lawn.

Cousins tell me the farm stays with them too. The phrase “You can’t go home again” comes to mind, and a Google search finds that it comes from the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel — published posthumously (when it’s even harder to go home again). But in idle moments (they do happen at Google, just not often) I think about visiting the farm. Next week I’ll fly out of Newark on my way to a vacation, and Google Maps tells me the farm is an hour from Newark airport…but I doubt I’ll have time.

I recently asked my mom for help as I tried to find the house using Google Maps. The first problem was that she didn’t know the address. It wasn’t that she’d forgotten it — her parents received postal mail by Rural Free Delivery, and didn’t have a street address. So we found the town, and just browsed, trying to spot landmarks from above. But decades of growth, especially new highways, made it difficult. Then we remembered the neighbors' last name. Google found a street address in seconds, and that took us back to Google Maps. Scrolling a few hundred yards southeast, we found the farm.

Here’s a screen shot from Maps. The original house is in the lower right. The driveway and barn are the same. It looks like someone’s added a second driveway and — where the garden was — a second house.

An amazing confluence of satellite and server technologies lets me sit on my couch and see the house. If I prefer, I can use Google Earth to "fly" there from anywhere else. I don’t know yet if that diminishes or increases my urge to see it in person, but it makes me happy to see the creek as it is today. Satellite images aren’t sharp enough to know for sure, but I expect there are still kids there squishing their toes in the mud.