Mapping our lives

I am rerunning a few of my earlier posts over the next few weeks. This one, about my father and our shared love of paper maps, was from October, 2013.

Several hours and a few hundred miles away from home, I realized that I had forgotten to bring my beloved road atlas with me on our trip to northern California. My husband and I have driven these freeways many times before, and it’s a pretty straight shot, so getting lost was not a worry. Both of us have smart phones, so both Google Maps and the ability to call for help and directions were both readily available. Still, I wanted a map.

I like being able to plot our progress; I want to see what little towns are up ahead, and, during the especially boring parts of the journey, to see how much further we have to go before something more interesting will appear. What’s the name of that lake over to the left? Which turnoff did we take last time when we visited that great little winery? Have we passed from Kern County to Kings County yet? Without a paper map, I am left with a blue dot moving through the state on my iPhone screen. Empty and soulless.

I inherited my love of paper maps from my father. He kept a large stack of them on his bookshelf – many were of often-visited locales, some he picked up on his and my mother’s journeys around the country and the world. He found it difficult, if not impossible, to throw any of them away – even when he picked up newer versions of ones he already had. It became apparent when I was clearing out his home for sale after his death that I not only had inherited his love of maps, but also his reluctance to throw them away. Each was a souvenir of a trip taken and a physical memory keeper of his and my mother’s journey together.

My father's 1986 California Road Atlas with his notes
My father’s 1986 California Road Atlas with his notes

The California road atlas I had inadvertently left home last week was one that belonged to my father. It is dated 1986 and contains notes he had written on many of the pages. Not all of them are trip-related: on the detail street maps showing the city of Los Angeles, he made notes indicating where the 1992 L.A. riots were occurring. I can picture him sitting at his home in San Diego, watching the news on television, the map book opened to the pages showing the parts of L.A. that were on fire.

As my father’s mind slowly slipped into the fog of dementia, and his earlier memories were clearer to him then recent ones, I discovered that he had adopted a ritual using the local newspaper’s daily U.S. weather map. Every day, he mapped his journey – across the country, and then overseas – that he took as a young recruit during the Second World War. Every day, he plotted his movements, from Cincinnati, through Denver, to California (where he met my mother), to Las Vegas (where they married three months later), to New York. Then he drew an arrow to the right towards Europe.

I don’t know much about his experiences during the war, but I do know that he was one of the lucky ones. He avoided the worst of combat and came home physically and, I believe, mentally unscathed. What he plotted every day on the newspaper map were memories of a great adventure. I wish I had kept one of those sweet, precious maps.
It’s probably time to buy a new California road atlas (assuming they still make them). I know that many roads have been added to the state since 1986 and a newer one would be more useful.

I also know that I will not throw away the old one that belonged to my father.

27 thoughts on “Mapping our lives”

  1. What a cool legacy to read about your father! I do still love my Thomas Guide and I think our generation is still in love with real maps! GPS on my phone has proven to be wrong many times in certain areas. I will still print a hard copy map from google maps if on a road trip.

    1. Oh yes, the challenge of unfolding and re-folding paper maps! I’ve also noticed that some road atlases have gotten quite large – great for seeing lots of territory, but hard to manage in the confines of a car. Dad’s old book map is just the right size.

  2. This is a wonderful tribute to your father, Janis. I love paper maps too, for the same reasons as you do. I only hope they don’t become extinct in this day and age.

  3. Good post – I can relate. My dad also taught me to love maps. He called me his navigator. I even set my Google maps navigate when I am going someplace local just to hear the voice call out the directions.

  4. oh my – I had forgotten about those days of travelling with maps. When the boys were young, we taught them to read maps so they could follow the trip on their own map to assess where we were relative to where we were going.
    With GPS now, no one seems to use maps anymore … although I still carry them in my car.

  5. Lovely piece in memory of your Dad and your intertwined journeys. I’m so glad you have at least one of his maps. I can see you pouring over it in search of extra clues as to who he was and the life he lived and what mattered to him.

    On a personal note: I need to see the whole picture and ‘real’ maps provide that view – mapquest and GSP do not. For all the advances in technology, our world is getting more narrow it seems and this is a good non-threatening example of just how that plays out in real life.

    peace

    1. Technology has its place but paper maps trump (yikes, I kind of dislike that word now) GPS for most of my travels of any length. I have a friend who is a cartographer and I am fascinated by his descriptions of what goes into creating a map.

  6. I still like my paper maps, atlases and “real” guidebooks as well. The digital world makes things easier and more compact, but, like you say, I find myself not knowing where I am on the road anymore when all I see is the close vicinity of the car on a small screen!

    1. I really hope we never get to a point when paper maps become an anachronism. I had a younger colleague when I was working who wasn’t familiar with Thomas Brothers maps. Perhaps they are on their way out (I’d be sad if that is so).

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