Remember maps? And I mean the kind of maps that once opened took an act of Congress to refold and close . . . the kind that were too big for one person to hold and read . . . the kind that had print too small for the elderly and too confusing for the young . . .the kind that identified rest stops and road side tables? Remember maps?
Maps used to be the crowning jewel of all travel – far or near. When traveling by automobile, maps were tucked away in every car crevice known to humankind. Front, back, underneath, inside, outside, maps were stored everywhere. In the trunk. Behind the visor. In the console. In fact, why in the world was it called a glove compartment because as far as I could tell it would have been more appropriately named the map compartment.
In the days of the giants, standard fare included the AAA TripTik (a thin, narrow map held together by red plastic comb-binding), the Rand McNally (an oversized fold-out map that didn’t seem to include any type of refolding instructions), and the Atlas (a magazine size paperback often found underneath the passenger seat).
And nothing was more fun than searching the family machine and finding an assortment of maps everywhere. Most of them were yellow and crumpled. Most of them were critical at some point. None of them were the ones needed at the time. So, in retrospect I can honestly say that all of them were simultaneously useless and useful.
In the useful category . . . maps were automatic conversation starters.
Car buddies wanted to know where the divided highway started and stopped. Maps told them. They wanted to know how many people lived in the upcoming town, and maps told them. They wanted a heads-up on ways to avoid constructions zones. Maps sometimes told them. They wanted to know the population, the time zone, the nearest capital, the shortcuts, the county, the state bird, the state tree, and the number of towns between point A and point B. And maps told them. Map conversations were a smooth blend of unique, important history with unusual, irrelevant trivia.
Also in the useful category was a map’s ability to lead the lost.
This ability, however, was predicated on the intelligence and brilliance of map users. Unfortunately once a person was lost, intelligence and brilliance took the preverbial backseat. Those who were lost had to know they were lost before they could use a map to figure out how to become found. (Don’t know if I can repeat that sentence and still understand the meaning a second time myself.)
In any event, intelligence and brilliance would have all of the folks in the lost category immediately admitting that they were just that . . . lost. However, in all my life, I can not recall any lost person snapping to attention, raising a hand, clearing a throat, and giving a shout-out that even remotely could be construed as an I-am-lost confession. Rather, far too often the lost preferred to remain lost just to avoid admitting that they needed to be found.
And how comical it could be to the map users’ audiences!
Initially, map users seemed to have a short list of questions that had to be ironed out prior to the lost admission. First were questions that blamed the map: Had the map’s born-on date expired? Was the map grid level sufficient for the intended journey? Did the map have any small print disclaimers? Was the dot on the map original . . . or crispy – a fitting question for the questions involving specks of food.
Second – were questions that blamed the map reader: Were the map eyes of the map readers within quality standards? Were all bifocals free of watermarks and other grim and grit? Were all map readers on the same page – literally and figuratively? Were map readers chosen based on ability or by default due to their status as passengers?
And the best question of all was the destination switcheroo that allowed the lost to change the final destination to the current location. After all, what better way to become found than to ask who really was tied to the initial destination anyways?
The true glory of maps really comes into play when thinking about their uselessness.
Those McTripTikAtlas maps really only have one shining moment, one moment to claim all the enchiladas, one moment to hold the number one spot, and that is the moment of their printing. For once printed, their journey to uselessness escalates at a rate faster than the 32 feet per second per second gravitation pull, leaving them to be nothing more than historical archives of the past, at best.
Moments after printing, all has changed – new cities, new roads, new construction sites, new road side tables. Well okay, maybe there aren’t too many new road side tables these days, but everything else has changed.
Most importantly, the uselessness of maps allowed us to have those golden Americana opportunities to be lost. What fun it was to hold up the flimsy, oversized, unfolded, outdated paper map and declare, “We’re Lost!” with the utmost authority and confidence, knowing that to become found would take some idle leisure time, some awkward adventuring, and some moments of uncertainty and frivolity.
No GPS censors to blink and beep to lead folks out of the abyss quickly and efficiently. No cellphone buddies to call and correct the crazy foolishness. No help button anywhere.
So here’s to the maps of yesteryear that allowed all to experience the ultimate joy of being honestly and wholeheartedly lost.
For the sights and sounds that are seen when living through ‘the lost’ are nothing shy of absolutely enchanting. I am quite sure that it was the lost who stumbled across the Redwood Forest and the Gulf Stream waters. They just made it look more intentional later to improve the discovery story.
My suggestion when traveling, leave those smart phones and tablets behind. Trust that the map compartment will contain something halfway between useless and useful, and see what you see on the next great lost adventure.