Remember the ancient times of the mid-to-late twentieth century, when long trips to unfamiliar places couldn’t be navigated by squinting at a computer the size of a deck of cards? If you needed to get from point A to point B, your first hope was that an elderly relative could give you directions that used no street names and depended on visual landmarks such as specific gas stations or funny-shaped trees. Plan B was to wander in the general direction until your wife got mad enough to make you stop the car and ask the locals for pointers. Plan C was to stay home and find something else to do.
Plan D was maps. Giant-sized maps that didn’t fit in your pocket unless you wadded them into a ball first, or wore overalls with enormous pockets. They unfolded into thirty or forty sections and covered your entire dining room table. If you were improvising on the run, they covered your dashboard, steering wheel, and most of your line of sight. Driving while mapping was, much like driving while texting, a fun way to terrorize your passengers and the drivers in the other lanes, adding new levels of stuntman risk to even the calmest Sunday outing.
Our primitive maps had no search function and required owners to learn how to use a grid system to locate things. In the above map, for example, the town of Black River Falls, WI, is at G-14. To younger folks that’s a Bingo call or a Battleship move or a lousy name for a punk-pop band. And “G-14” is meaningless to Google Maps, which will scoff and ask, “Did you mean ‘GTA4 cheats’?” Conversely, locating Black River Falls on the paper map won’t give you the option of touching it and unleashing additional information such as nearby restaurants or tourist attractions or census info or Wisconsin Death Trip trivia. Back in those days, we didn’t care about superfluous details. We just wanted to arrive.
Everyone’s least favorite part: putting the map away when you were done. Anyone who could duplicate at least 40% of the original folding moves in reverse was considered a cartography savant. More often than not, your final refolding left you with a map three times thicker than its original width at purchase, transformed into a haphazard, puffy eyesore. When parents got frustrated and gave up, getting those original folds back in place and in the right order was what the kids did for puzzle fun before Rubik’s Cubes were invented.
I’m surprised anyone is still manufacturing paper maps. I used to buy through Rand McNally, but their selection is a fraction of what it used to be, doubtlessly thanks to virtual maps cutting into their market, not to mention their forays into new markets such as GPS-abusing mischievous misdirection machines. AAA is still proud to hook me up with the classic versions, though. My annual membership entitles me to all the free maps I can carry out of our local agency, and full-size state maps are nice for seeing entire expanses of interstates and all the intervening small towns at a single perusal without having to scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll to move my eyes across the miles.
Also, if we get lost in one of those deep, dark, scary sections of America where 4G networks can’t reach — areas so removed from 21st-century living that Subway hasn’t staked a franchise claim yet — my phone will be relatively useless, but our super-sized origami geography helpers will save us, as long as we don’t spill drinks on them or forgetfully pack them in the bottom of our luggage.
School taught us a little about maps, but teachers never figured out how to share the knowledge enthusiastically. If you ask me, there was a lost opportunity for someone to write a children’s song called “Unfold! Locate! Escape!” Too late now for that — youngsters these days either follow their phone apps like trusty guide dogs, or stay home and refuse to go outside in the first place.
That’s their call to make, but as for me and my wife, we have things we’re planning to do, places to see, strangers to greet, oxygen to breathe in, sunshine to reunite with, and a few bizarre statues to check out at P-19.