Maps and journeys

I unearthed this cache of old road maps the other day while doing a major cleanup of my office.


I’d completely forgotten about them and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of places I’ve visited over the years.

As I fanned them out on the floor I realized these maps didn’t just depict a single location or a single trip. Taken together they charted the course of my life. And now they were waypoints leading back through memory.

My wife and I celebrated our first anniversary in San Francisco and the wine country in Napa and Sonoma.

We took our kids on a camping trip through Montana and Idaho, featuring a stunning drive along Highway 12 from Missoula over Lolo Pass in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark.

The ferry ride we took from Seattle to San Juan Island came to a dead stop about halfway across. We rushed to the rail along with all the other passengers, wonderstruck by a pod of orcas frolicking off the starboard bow.

On the last night of a software industry conference in Amsterdam, I sat outside at a bar in the Jordaan district with one of my colleagues. There was live entertainment; a woman singing Portuguese Fado.

But I stopped buying paper maps a long time ago. I suppose most people have. It used to be you could buy maps at every gas station and book store. Maybe you still can, but it’s been ages since I’ve even noticed.

It’s not that we don’t use maps any more. We’re not stumbling blindly through terra incognita after all. On the contrary, I suspect we use them more than ever. They’re on our phones, on web sites, and built into our cars. Maps themselves have made a journey, from analog to digital, and along the way they’ve become ubiquitous.

The thing is, though, something’s missing. The maps most of us use most of the time show us only enough to get to the next turn or the next Starbucks. 

Paper maps have one big advantage over digital maps; their size. Open them up and spread them out on the kitchen table and you get a wonderful overview of a place, the lay of the land, the major features, the overlapping networks of rivers, railroads and highways, and the varying densities of human settlement. Mostly you get a sense of proportion, of relative sizes and distances. Somehow zooming in and zooming out doesn’t convey this in quite the same way.

And even though they’re all about place, maps help you travel through time. They show you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you will be.

I still love maps, even digital ones, as much as I did when I was a kid raptly studying the voyages of the great explorers like Samuel de Champlain, Alexander Mackenzie, Ferdinand Magellan, Captain Cook, and many others.  I’m glad I’ve had so many opportunities to make my own little journeys.

Nonetheless I ended up throwing all the maps into the recycling bin except one. Following the advice of decluttering guru Marie Kondo, I kept only the map of Prague because it still “sparked joy.” (I happened to be in Prague at an historic moment.) The others? Well I’ll probably never go back to most of those places – I’ll want to discover new ones – and if I do, I guess my phone will provide turn-by-turn directions.  

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