On the road, I follow a paper trail

But to my 13-year-old companion, such maps are like rotary phones.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
It’s a western U.S. state; it has a panhandle; it is famous for a particular crop. Did you guess Idaho? Then you are correct.

Confession: I use maps. Not the tiny, annoyingly limited ones on smartphones; I use real paper maps that you open from a rectangle and rarely refold properly. Maps you can sit and gaze at before journeys or whip out to rapidly scan on the road in unfamiliar territory. Paper maps are reliable, aesthetic, endlessly engaging to me, and need no recharging. They simply and placidly orient and inform. I’ve always packed maps of destinations when traveling abroad. I even carry an Indiana map in my glove compartment after almost 40 years here. You’d be surprised how often I need to consult it when I’m out of my home county. 

I’ve traveled in and out of the state with my grandson often enough to have long since introduced him to this archaic way of getting from place to place. His first response as a 7- or 8-year-old was “Just use the GPS.” But that was no help, since the one in my old Honda Fit is hopelessly outdated. As for a smartphone, I didn’t even own one until recently. I’m still getting up to speed with its capabilities, and navigation is low on the list as long as I have real, handheld, creased, and intricately detailed road maps at hand. And so Connor is learning to use them too. Opening one myself on the steering wheel is akin to texting while driving, perhaps even more distracting for me. I’ve done it, but I’ve reformed. That’s what passengers riding shotgun are for. 

On our travels within the United States we use fresh maps from a bookstore, or better yet, AAA. They are free for members, and I’ve visited my local office multiple times to avail myself of this perk. Our next trip will be to visit family and friends in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and I’ve just picked up new copies of those states’ road maps. I’ve yellow-highlighted our route from the airport in Providence, Rhode Island, to Old Saybrook and Durham in Connecticut, then up to Amherst, Massachusetts, and back to Providence. It is pretty familiar territory for me, as I’ve spent multiple summers doing geologic fieldwork in the hemlock forests and at roadside outcrops up and down the Connecticut River Valley. Still, I wouldn’t think of driving around those states without paper maps. It would be too out of character, too presumptive. It would be like traveling without a good book or moral compass.

Going over the route with now 13-year-old Connor so that he can follow along and occasionally answer a routing question while I’m driving our rental car may take some perseverance on my part. He looks at road maps the same way he looks at my old college typewriter or my mom’s rotary phone. But his next tutorial on navigating with paper is imminent, and I’m determined that he learn the ropes. By the time he’s driving himself I’ll have a stash of new maps of Indiana and surrounding states for his glove compartment. Who knows when a cellphone might quit or a GPS system run amok? Connor will always have recourse to a map and a childhood memory of how to interpret a map’s scale and symbols, how to differentiate between state and national roads, how to measure distances, and how to plot a course from A to B. You just can’t tell when you might have to draw on such arcana. 

I could really get Connor’s goat by apprising him of directional prompts derived from the sun, moon, and stars. But enough is enough for a newly minted teenager. For this next trip at least, we’ll stay grounded in maps.

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