Essay: Map Reading

According to the Huffington Post, paper maps are a thing of the past.

I believe in maps. That is, I believe in the real time experience of exploring the area I’m traveling. I want lines, dots, symbols, names and places of everything around me. Map Quest doesn’t offer that.

Throughout a trip we took a couple years ago, I used road maps and my daughter and her boyfriend—the driver, most of the time—used Map Quest directions. They didn’t trust the time-worn, map-reading method; preferring instead, step-by-step instructions, easing their transition from one place to another with minimal effort: Turn right onto exit 51. 0.3 miles. 0.2 minutes. There’s something lost in the experience.

Perhaps the contact of folding out the map and inspecting every nook and cranny of the location I’m traveling—the towns and cities I’ll pass. Color, location and size distinguish one place from another and create an image to follow through.

The difference between the road atlas and map quest is as different as reading a great book or having someone tell me about it. I would rather experience it myself.

I had maps spread out on the backseat of the car and I kept referring to the Millennium edition of AAA’s Road Atlas, believing I could be of some aid to the driver. “We don’t want to go to Dubuque,” I said. He ignored me and passed our turnoff to Cedar Rapids and headed toward Dubuque.

The road atlas is worn from use. Folding and unfolding has left it marked and torn. I’ve used transparent tape in the folds to keep it together and refuse to buy a new one, because this one is just fine. There are marks I’ve made along roads traveled.

Almost eight years ago, I mapped a trip from Stockton, California to Springdale, Arkansas and used a yellow highlighter to mark the roads we would take. There’s a small asterisk, made in blue ink next to Gallup, New Mexico to indicate we stayed there for the night, camping at the KOA.

Another set of marks will indicate the route we took during a snow storm and ended up stuck at the edge of a shallow embankment. We made it out fine, but a short jaunt that usually takes twenty minutes turned into a white-knuckled experience, stretching into three hours.

In To Timbuktu, Mary Jenkins wrote, “Maps encourage boldness. They’re like cryptic love letters. They make anything seem possible.”

Places dreamed or read about, spread out before us in two dimensions are located at the tip of our fingers, waiting for our feet to follow. Start here, it says.

There is boldness in the unfolding. The act of mapping a route hails back to conquerors and explorers. It’s a time-honored tradition for those who dare to dream and dreaming in the 21st century is daring. In a time when technology dominates, cynicism abounds and easier is better, real time experience in following dreams, reading maps and sailing the rough sea of life is not a sound investment.

It’s an investment I believe in, because I believe in maps. That is, I believe in the two-dimensional perspective that anything is possible, real-time experience, possibility and sailing the rough and colorful sea of life. In other words, I prefer to read the great book myself.


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