Rubbing my head, I look on the floor where the offending object landed. It is a large, clear bag spilling its contents, which are uniformly slender and rectangular in shape. Many of them curl at their edges.
After a moment, I recognize them. Taken together, they comprise a sentimental journey of where I've been. Vermont. New Hampshire. Vermont and New Hampshire. Maine. Florida. Texas. Arizona. New Mexico. Vancouver. London. Paris. Detroit, of course. And many other places.
Oh yeah, I think as I sit on the floor going through them. Maps.
I had forgotten about maps. These days, I search online for the way to my destination. I print it out. Its paint-by-numbers directions could not be clearer:
Turn left onto Getlost Blvd., 1.3 miles.
Turn slight right onto WhereamI Dr., 7.4 miles.
Turn left onto Someotherstreet Rd., 3.7 miles.
End at 505 Wherever Ln.
And yet I still get lost. Which is why we have cell phones. "Yeah. Nick? What? Listen, I can't hear you. Sounds like a great party. She's what? Uh-huh. Yeah, well, I wish I were there, but those computer directions ..."
Maps are becoming the vinyl records of our age. Not gone entirely, like, say, the washing machine with the rollers. But a relic nonetheless.
Future generations will come across maps and scratch their heads: Do you think they used these to tell time?
The problem with maps is, well, just about everything. They rip.They only show in detail one particular thing, so you need a thousand of them. And you can never fold them back to their original form.
But I am not here to bury maps. I am here to praise them.
IT IS THE 150th ANNIVERSARY of that great mapmaker, Rand McNally. Which is to say, it is the 150th anniversary of conversations such as these:
"Uh, where are we?"
"I don't know."
"Can you check the map?"
"See where we are?"
"I think so."
"See where we should be going?"
"Um … I think … let's see … maybe … this way?"
Even now, with all the electronic, computerized hoo-ha, a trip, to me, means buying and studying a map. I love choosing just the right one, with lettering that is not too big, not too small, and has parts of the city arranged in a way that provides both an overview and a microscopic look. I like spreading them out on the dining room table at night, contemplating the route.
I hate the feeling of having to pull over when things just don't feel right, knowing I am hopelessly lost, but cherish that exhilarating "A-ha" moment when I look at the map and discover that I am found. Well, okay, maybe not found, but at least a general sense of where I should have turned.
I like scribbling notes on maps. I like spilling coffee on them; I like making someone else fold them.
The road is more shared with a map. I even like the arguments."Can't you read a map!?" "Yeah, I can read a map. And I am telling you, it's this way!" "Okay, we'll try it your way." "Great." "Fine."
Guided-navigation systems right your wrongs with a soothing voice. "This is OnStar. May I help you?"
That's great and all. But I miss the tussle. Arguing about which way to go is part of the fun of getting there. (Isn't it?)
And a guided-navigation system doesn’t fit in your back pocket. Not that you need it to. It is always there, so why would you? But there is something comforting about having a map stuck there, then pulling it out when you enter a restaurant. The locals glance over, and sometimes one of them asks if he can help. Next thing you know, you’re talking baseball with him.
Navigation systems don’t help you meet strangers.
This is not to pick on guided-navigation systems. Because, let’s face it, they are a vast improvement over maps that rip right down the road you are looking for and get smudged with coffee exactly on the spot that you need to study, and sprawl all over the car because they can’t be folded properly. But I’ll always love maps.
I pick up the large, clear bag, stuffed with maps. I think about tossing it. Why save it? But then I put it back on the shelf.
It’ll be fun for a grandchild to come across the maps someday down the road.