By Caitlin Kelly
Call me old-fashioned, but how I love a paper map!
Laminated or not, a map offers so many specific details about where I’m headed, from elevation to campsites to the width of the road to the locations of airports, hospitals — even windmills!
I love the anticipation of reading a map and wondering how the landscape will resemble its contours.
On long road trips, I like having a sense of progression — yup, we passed that exit!
I treasure my battered paper map of Corsica, scene of one of the happiest weeks of my life, anywhere, ever. I had been fired from one magazine job and found a new one a week later, with a healthy raise. Score!
I had one week to enjoy, and knew exactly where I wanted to go, this island off of the southern coast of France, known for its rugged, hilly terrain. I decided to travel by mo-ped, with a top speed of 45 mph, making a circle tour through the Balagne, the northern bit. I used a Frommer’s or Fodor’s guidebook and booked my hotels in advance so all I had to do was get from one to the next.
Imagine driving through the maquis, that scrubby brush filled with sun-warmed herbs, your nostrils filled with its aroma, the sun on your back, winding down hairpin turns to the sea.
While out there alone, I drove past the Deserts Des Agriates, one of the most eerie and desolate landscapes I’ve ever seen. I had no camera, but will never forget it.
I also love the physicality of maps, how they link us to every explorer before us, from Magellan to Lawrence of Arabia.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve used Mapquest for directions that somehow didn’t work; without a map, I’d have been toast as we don’t have or use GPS.
Imagine one of the Jason Bourne films, (my favorites!), with a robo-voiced GPS instead of him, as he always does in the car chase scenes, driving at top speed through a foreign city while trying to unfold and read an unwieldy map:
— Turn right, assassin to your immediate left!
— Now, duck again!
— Are you still alive?
Here’s a lovely piece about why one man also prefers maps to GPS:
Consider this, though: Using printed maps requires travelers to work together. You become a team. Driver and navigator. Your ability to get along and solve problems is tested in valuable, revealing ways. GPS removes that entire interpersonal dynamic. It encourages a passive form of journeying: sit back and drift, because the vaguely Australian-sounding computer lady will tell you to turn left in a quarter mile.
Driving by map, on the other hand, engages you actively with your surroundings. It makes you observe road signs, be in the moment. And that closer engagement, I’ve found, imprints the landscape more vividly and permanently on your mind. When I return home, I can unfold my maps and take myself back to a town or a stretch of highway.
Often I’ll buy a map months before the trip, and by studying it try to pull the opposite trick — to transport myself into the place I intend to visit. It builds anticipation. Eric Riback, a map publisher in upstate New York who writes a blog called Mapville, described this to me poetically as the “seeking, dreaming part of travel that you can do with a map.”
Do you still ever use paper maps?