While it is true that in most of my life, I have attempted to go paperless, there are a few places where having the paper makes all of the difference in the world. One of those things for me are maps. Until very recently, I forgot how much I loved maps, what joy they can be. It took years of using GPS and Google Maps to remind me just how wonderful a foldout map really is.
We are planning a road trip for the summer. It is the first significant road trip I’ve done in many years, and certainly before having kids. When we finally decided to do it, when we knew it was going to happen, I felt a sudden, desperate need for a foldout map. But I didn’t have any. Why would I carry around old, dated maps when I have access to a GPS, to say nothing of Google Maps on my iPhone, iPad and computer? I have this desire to pour over maps when planning a trip, however, and try as I might to use Google Maps for this purpose, it simply didn’t work for me. I needed a paper map.
I’ve loved maps for as far back as I can remember. I’m not sure when I actually discovered maps, or how. I suspect it was looking at the foldout maps that my parents had in their car. Or perhaps the maps that my grandpa sold at his service station. But opening a map was like opening a door into an amazing new world for me. I could pour over a map for hours at a time. There was nothing in school that the teachers could teach me about maps that I didn’t already know. I’d read everything on them in detail. I knew the different colors for the different types of roads. I knew what the numbers meant on 2- and 3-digit interstates. I knew how to read the mileage between two points. Road maps were wonderful for me as a kid. I didn’t know why then, but looking back on it, I think it was because they were so densely packed with information, in an efficient and logical way. They used letters, numbers, words, colors and symbols to convey multiple layers of information. You could tell so much about a place simply by locating it on a map.
As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, the maps to have were Thomas Guides, thick books with incredibly detailed street maps, far more detailed than your typical foldout map. I lost countless hours studying those maps in detail. There was a time, it seemed, when I knew every road in the San Fernando Valley by heart. If we went somewhere and there was traffic or something blocking our route, I knew exactly where to turn to get around it. I’m not sure if Thomas Guides are in as much use today with the advent of GPS, but they were priceless to me.
When I was a little older, I became interested in contour maps, and would study detailed trail maps for various parks. Then, when I started getting into aviation, I would study the various maps and diagrams that pilots used. Eventually I became a pilot myself and during that time, I learned some pretty cool tricks to reading maps and finding your way around through the use of landmarks and timing.
But slowly, slowly, GPSs crept in. At first they were novelties, but by the time I moved to the metro Washington, D.C. area a decade ago they were becoming less novel and more and more standard. And maps seemed to disappear. This had its affect on me. I never learned the roads in this area nearly as well as when I lived in Los Angeles. I suspect this is because I don’t generally look at maps, but allow the GPS to plan the route for me. Indeed, the last time I can recall using a map to plan a road trip had to be more than ten or twelve years ago when I took my grandpa on a road trip up to Maine. I had so much fun planning that trip, sitting at the table surrounded by my maps and rulers and pencils. I had the entire trip timed out to an estimated arrival. Over the course of the nine hour drive, I ended up arriving within two minutes of my estimate. Almost as a good as a GPS.