The Joy of Maps

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.

So when we decided to take our road trip this summer, I felt a desperate desire for a paper map. And when Google Maps failed me in this respect, I did the logical thing. I headed over to our local gas station and asked if they sold maps. They did not. (Indeed, not only did they not sell maps, they looked at me kind of funny, as if asking: why would you come to a gas station looking for a map.) I tried the grocery store and they didn’t sell maps either. I checked to see where my local AAA was, but it was too far for me to want to head out there. So I walked to our local Barnes & Noble bookstore and  finally found a section with nothing but maps. At first glance, however, it didn’t seem like they had the map I was looking for, but I finally found it (the very last one) hidden behind some other maps. With that map–and with one other that Kelly had hidden away in her car–I was able to start planning our road trip.


I also picked up a magnifying glass (my eyes aren’t what they used to be) and a compass (geometry tool, not directional tool) and then I began planning the trip.

What’s involved in planning a road trip, at least for me? I’ll find the general route I want to take, and then use the distances provided on the map to figure out how far things are. I’ll note all of the distances on a piece of paper (although, here, I’ll admit that instead of using paper, I used a spreadsheet). I estimated a start time, and had a running total of how long we’d been going at each point. From this I could decide on places to stop at regular intervals for things like restroom breaks (we will have two little kids with us) or eating, or stretching our legs. Mostly, I like seeing the result. Leaving at a given time, driving at certain speeds, stopping for certain intervals, will have us arriving at a set time. I know that GPSs do this and I know Google Maps will do this, but I like fiddling with the map and figuring it out all on my own. And I like seeing how close I come to reality when we finally hit the road.

I enjoy maps so much that I’m hoping my kids like them too. I’m not even certain the Little Man, now three, has a concept of what a map is, although I’m pretty certain I’d seen maps when I was three. To rectify that, I picked up a big wall map of the United States and a bunch of push pins. Yesterday, we put the map on some foam board and started pushing in pins in all the places that the Little Man has been so far. The idea is that after each trip, we’ll add more pins, talk about the map, how far things are, what they are close to, and he’ll learn to love maps as much as I do:


You can already see a bunch of pins on his map, many of them in the northeast, but also in Florida, Texas, California, and Washington State.

GPSs are great tools to help with navigation, but I found myself becoming too dependent on them and losing the fun of playing with maps. Of course, we’ll have our GPS with us on our road trip, but it will be there mostly as a reference and to check my own work at navigating–or for taking those random detours that sometimes come up on trips like this. But I’ll know the route much better because I’ve studied it in detail in the fold out maps that I used to help plan the trip. There is a really joy in doing that, a real feeling of accomplishment.


  1. I love my Garmin, as out of date it is with some things (I need a new one, like you got last year…)

    But maps, Jamie? Maps are always a love of mine, be it real or fantasy worlds. There is no substitute for a good map, and dreaming of places to visit and things to see.

    GPS can’t give you that.

    1. Paul, funny thing about the GPS I got last year: it’s great and it came with lifetime updates for map. So yesterday, I went to do an update. I discovered that the current 2013 maps for North America are too big to fit on my device. I had to change it to load just the “lower 49 states.” I can add additional memory via an SD card, but that is a limitation to free lifetime map updates that I hadn’t considered.

  2. I am map challenged when it comes to actually finding something on a road map…but the first time I saw the Maps of Middle Earth from the 1960’s era Ballantine edition I wanted to travel those roads.

    Occasionally a good GM evokes the same feeling in me.

  3. Jamie,

    I too developed a love of maps. Started at about 12 with street maps, deepened when I read LOTR at 13. But at 16 I was learning to drive in San Fernando Valley. The Thomas Maps were a treasure trove with hours of fun study.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.