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Have Maps, Will Travel

GPS has been a gift to some, but this traveler revels in the romance of paper maps.

Image of a road map of the greater Chicago area
Photo caption
AAA has been producing paper maps for more than 100 years.

I cannot look at a map without imagining myself in the places it charts, an addiction shared by Sherlock Holmes, who spent a full day in his armchair spellbound by a map of Devonshire, lost in the moors near Baskerville Hall.

Cartophilia, the love of maps, sounds like a disease and often behaves like one. To judge by the stash in their attic, my in-laws never went to the bathroom without detailed directions from a AAA TripTik. They will never again drive from Springfield, Mass., to Disney World, but Dennis and RuthAnn Lobo saved those TripTiks anyway, their every coffee stain and mustard spatter—Pollock paintings in condiment colors—as evocative to their owners as the faded vacation Polaroids.

My father preferred folding maps, and he frequently had one spread wide in both hands, like an architect’s blueprint, while driving 80 miles an hour and steering with his knees. These are unfolding maps, really, for the most dedicated origami artist cannot refold one, at least not into its original configuration. Dad used to stuff them frantically into the glove box—like detonated air bags, 100 times their undeployed volume—while idling at stoplights.

We’d be lost without maps. Even maps we don’t look at help us find our way. Stand on some windswept corner in a foreign place, a city map flapping in your hands: How long before a local looks over your shoulder, head cocked to one side as if reading your newspaper on the subway, and asks you where you’re going?

These same maps, of course, can mark you out as prey: lost, helpless, and far from home. But then maps have invited danger—have taunted and tempted us—since the legend here be dragons first appeared on one. The young Marlow in Heart of Darkness puts his finger on a map’s blank space and says: “When I grow up, I will go there.” Which causes him a great deal of trouble and regret. It’s a thin line that separates atlas and alas.

But maps, alas, are not what they used to be. Or rather, they’re exactly what they used to be, while virtual alternatives displace them. This year alone there will be 500 million new shipments of GPS integrated circuits, a 45 percent increase over 2009, according to ABI Research, a market research firm.

When I get in my car now some disembodied dominatrix, speaking through the dashboard GPS, tells me where to go (“Turn left”). And as often as not, I tell her where to go (“I turned left, and I’m still lost, you &%$*# shrew!”).

Even the least Luddite of scientists warn that GPS might erode the brain’s hardwired navigational sense, just as computers eroded penmanship and TV eroded reading skills. Is map reading next?

Since antiquity, maps have given humans a God’s-eye view of where we live. But now so do the lower-case gods of Google, whose Google Earth allows each of us to see what the top of our house looks like, a leap forward that never fails to make me whisper in awe: “So that’s where the Frisbee went.”

But Google and MapQuest, however useful, have taken the art and romance out of cartography. An Air France map of the world hangs in the front hall of my house. Exquisitely illustrated in 1949 by Lucien Boucher, it is endlessly diverting, with the north wind embodied by a puff-cheeked cherub, lips puckered, blowing. I often feel like Sherlock Holmes when I stand in front of it, transfixed by its images (bedouins, gauchos, Chinese dragons) and place-names (Ceylon, Beyrouth, Brazzaville).

In my basement hangs another iconic marvel of modern design, a map of the London Underground for which draftsman Harry Beck was paid just five guineas in 1931. There is some kind of lesson here: If you design a subway map, expect a token sum.

That much-copied Tube map is on T-shirts and coffee mugs and basement walls around the world. By contrast, few will rhapsodize a century from now about the beauty of Google Street View, in which my wife is just visible in front of our house, gardening in sweatpants and a do-rag, a momentary fashion indiscretion forever preserved by those modern-day Mercators of Mountain View, Calif. These street-view maps are fascinating, to be sure—but of keener interest to the voyeur than the voyageur.

No, give me real maps—a quixotic desire in this digital age, but one that Don Quixote himself would have understood. “Without so much as stirring out of the shade and shelter of the court,” said the manfrom La Mancha, we can “journey over all the universe in a map.” Those maps mustn’t vanish from the face of the Earth. They showed us that face in the first place.

Photography courtesy AAA NCNU

This article was first published in September 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.