GPS is fine, but give me my paper maps

The wonders of GPS are thorough. Transformative, even. But there’s no pleasure in them for me.

I was reminded of that this summer when I was given a road atlas to take with me on a trip. I gratefully accepted it, knowing full well I didn’t need it. But I wanted it, and that’s a key distinction.

I’m old enough to remember when paper maps were a necessity. And that’s how I got around, learning what routes to take across multiple states and through numerous towns where I’d never been. Back then, there was no pleasant-sounding voice politely telling me to turn right in 300 feet, or to keep going straight for the next 10 miles. Getting from Point A to a far-away Point B took a little research.

I know this makes me sound like a Luddite, but that’s OK. For me, it was as simple as this: Instead of typing in a destination of choice, picking a route and punching “start” on my phone, I had the pleasure of opening that atlas, looking where I was, and running an index finger along squiggly lines until I was able to connect the dots between where I was and where I wanted to be. In doing so, I also saw what I might pass: towns of interest, wildlife refuges, mountain ranges and national parks. Tracing my route on paper gave me things to look forward to.

It was a little like watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and watching the scenes where you could see on a map where Indiana Jones was flying to now, and where he ended up – always in some romantic, exotic, adventurous locale we could only dream of. Alamosa ain’t Nepal, but at least there was some imagination working as I viewed the map rather than mindlessly poking a touch screen.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

J.R.R. Tolkien knew the allure of maps. His books are famous for their prose, but those maps also sucked you into the story. He carefully drew mountain ranges, forests, swamps and deserts, printing their names with elegant lettering – art in their own right. When you read a passage describing a place Frodo and the gang were going, you’d turn to the beginning of the book to see exactly where it was.

I’ve always been fascinated by maps. I’ll sit down and pore over them, looking at their details – state names, large cities and small towns, rivers, mountains and lakes – my own way of getting to know the land. It’s low-tech, low commitment and engrossing. Someone took the time to plot out a place, and in turn, did their best to write down its details so you can explore it. It’s not a lot different than writing, just fewer words, more visuals to interpret, and so forth. Cartography is a form of storytelling, and storytelling is an art.

And I guess that’s why I opened up my atlas to plot my course instead of looking at my phone. I didn’t head out on a road trip with a goal of merely getting there. I was looking for a story of my own.

I appreciate GPS and the ease of navigation it provides. I love that it’s as close as my pocket. But there’s no romance to it. That’s reserved for my old maps. They illustrate adventure, and that is sexy as hell.

Bob Doucette

6 thoughts on “GPS is fine, but give me my paper maps

  1. Love this! I’m reminded of the days when a small group of friends and I explored the northeast corner of our state looking for camping – and caving! – locales, using dogeared, coffee-stained maps to chart our course. I was always so impressed by how detailed the maps we used were. Finding county roads on any maps I look at now is an exercise in futility!!

    Great post. Oh! And I especially appreciated this little nugget:

    “Cartography is a form of storytelling, and storytelling is an art.”

    Well done!

    Julie

  2. I have always loved maps also. In history books I’d always spend too much time looking at maps and not enough time reading the text!
    But for all my love of maps, I can’t read one to save my life. I can follow roads, but I cannot walk in the woods and use a map to navigate or get back out!
    When we used to go hunting I always made note of the position of the sun when we left the truck. That way I could always figure out the general direction back to the road.
    Fortunately, my Dad didn’t need a map and always seemed to know where we were.
    I think I still have some of those gas station maps! You see things on a map that your smart phone can’t show because it’s basically a 3×5″ card.

    • Very similar experiences. I’ll pore over maps in books. They’re fascinating. I’m getting better at field navigation, but that’s a deeper skill that takes practice. I’m not totally there yet. Don’t discount your skill of referencing the sun! That’s a real deal.

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