Atlas shrugged off
It's time to mourn the death of the paper map.
By Lisa Brunette
But first, I needed to obtain one.
Before heading out of town, we stopped to get gas at the station with the world’s largest Amoco sign (I’m not kidding; it really is.) This gas-pump island doesn’t have a convenience mart attached, just a walk-up window with a metal security drawer through which attendants pass you change, energy drinks, or Lotto scratch-offs. But feeling bold, and encouraged by the attendant’s friendly offer of assistance, I asked, “Got any paper maps?”
“Any what?” She asked.
“Paper maps. You know, the kind that fold up?”
The attendant eyed me with pity. “Your phone don’t work?”
I smiled, casting around for a line that would convince her I wasn’t just another loopy customer with nothing to do but ruin her day. “Yeah, but we’re driving through some spots where we might not have service.”
That probably wasn’t true, but it seemed to work. “Hang on a minute.” What commenced was an elaborate and admirable effort on her part to extract a map from no less than the vault of time. And by that I mean: She dragged a step stool out from a broom closet, grabbed a dust-pan-on-a-stick, hopped atop the stool, and used the dust-pan stick to reach over the top of a cooler full of single-use bottles of water. Back behind a box of fold-up sun visors and stacks of Mountain Dew, she retrieved the holy grail: a fold-out, paper map of the entire US highway system. “It’s our last one,” she announced with triumph, and I loved her for all of this, the rare moment of excellent customer service capped by the well-earned victory, too.
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After such a monumental undertaking, I couldn’t not buy it, despite a tear along one of the creases and a big, greasy stain spoiling the map legend. It was $8.99.
But it did the trick, at least for the bird’s-eye view of the full route we’d take through Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and finally, South Carolina. You see, one of the problems with phone GPS is, except for that quick, disorienting flash at the start, it only shows you what’s right in front of you, not the journey as a whole.
To me, that’s a problem. I’m known among friends and family as the one with the good sense of direction. That skill was borne out of a military-brat childhood and equally mobile adulthood, and it was forged by learning to use maps. There’s something primal about tracing one’s path, a move that connects to our ancestors and their travels. It’s not the same with a phone.
The cellphone is also a crutch. We can’t progress until it literally tells us what to do. Visiting our son in Charleston, it took him longer to meet us one morning because he’d temporarily misplaced his phone and couldn’t retrace the route he’d driven the day before without it. “I don’t know how you guys ever survived without these,” he said, holding up the device he’s practically never without. Indeed, one of the hardest aspects of boot camp for him was the phone confiscation, having to go through a day without that digital talisman, that touchstone, that extension of his very self.
In pre-covid days we hosted parties here on the farm, and once I invited a young co-worker. He was new to the area, but navigated successfully to our location using GPS. The party dragged on into the wee hours, and eventually goodbyes were said. It was not until work the following Monday that I learned he had spent hours driving around the neighborhood, unable to find a way out or anyone in the early morning hours to ask the way back to town. Apparently on the way to the party he had just followed instructions and hadn't really paid much attention to the route. Then sometime during the evening his phone battery died, leaving him unable to find his way home.
It’s startling to think that we’ve become so dependent on technology that we can no longer function without it. That was my main reason for opting for the paper map.
While perfect for getting the overall travel route locked down, quickly I wished for more detail than my hard-won US highway map provided. We were only in Missouri for a piece, a route I knew. In an Illinois rest area, there was a terrific map hung in a glass cabinet—as if it were a memorial to the paper map—but none for the taking.
We didn’t stop at another rest area until Tennessee, and there we found acres of tourist brochures but not a single map to be had. The Carolinas, however, came to the rescue. Mad props to both North and South Carolina on all counts: snazzy rest areas, friendly visitor-center ambassadors, and most of all, high-quality, old-school paper maps of their respective states, free of charge.
Using these maps on the last leg of our journey reminded me why paper maps are superior, besides the fact that they aren’t dependent on your phone’s presence, functionality, and battery life.
Tap in “rest stop” to your phone’s map search, and what you’ll get are directions to a mattress store, which is really no help when you just need to pee!
But paper maps, good ones, like both Carolina maps, note every single rest area on your route. So you can plan out your stops ahead of time, and you won’t get stuck in one of those “next rest area not for 91 miles” zones with a full bladder.
After this experience, my interest in paper maps has piqued. I’d like to collect a paper map for each of our 50 states, though it might be tough to get them. The map from that gas station at the start of our journey was printed right here in St. Louis, as it turns out, by a company called Wunnenberg’s. But a search online tells me they’re no longer in business.