|It would seem, in the days of GPS, that the common|
paper road map is obsolete, but it has not outlived its
usefulness to us as a nation. A look at an icon of the
American Century, in transition.
For the last several years, publication has been on the decline nationwide. In the waning days of the summer vacation season, the Missouri Department of Transportation cut the print run of its latest highway map from 5 million to 2.7 million in an effort to save about $350,000. This development carried the weight of portent. If it can happen in the Show-Me State—the Ozarks, in my experience at least, are not the sort of place that particularly rewards unguided navigation—it can happen anywhere.
It’s not just Missouri. In an informal poll (I sent an e-mail to all fifty state transportation department spokespersons; half a dozen or so responded), little hope emerged for the preservation of the printed state highway map. B.J. Doughty, spokesman for the DOT in Tennessee, cited “large amounts of leftover maps.” “We give out free maps every August at our state fair, and those numbers have dropped,” said Kevin Gutknecht in Minnesota. “Since discontinuing the service, we have not had much complaint,” said Lars Erickson in Washington State, where the last maps rolled off the presses in 2008.
The suspects are usual: technology, in this case particularly GPS. And the precedents are familiar: Video v. the Radio Star, Craigslist v. Your Daily Paper, Mobile Telephony v. Any Semblance of Civility. One by one, fast and then faster, the lifestyle tools of the American Century have become relics. For those of us old enough to remember, their decline has made a parlor game out of counting the household essentials our children will never know: a Polaroid, a phone book, a transistor radio—a parlor game, for that matter.
This, then, would seem to be the moment to mark the passage of an icon, dwelling in fond detail on the cartoon images of filling station attendants, and working in a small joke about how tough the darned things were to fold. According to James R. Akerman, director of the Center for the History of Cartography at the Newberry Library in Chicago, state governments, oil companies, motor clubs, and other organizations with an interest in the promotion of automotive travel produced “tens of billions” of road maps over the course of the twentieth century.
As a symbol of the promise of the highway, the maps burrowed their way into the national psyche. Dots moving along a map became a staple of road trip movies. John Steinbeck, preparing to tour the country with a dog named Charley, denounced travelers “so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside they pass through, and others who, having traced a route, are held to it as though held by flanged wheels to rails.” Bruce Springsteen sang about Wanda, who worked at the Route 60 Bob’s Big Boy, sitting on his lap, wiping greasy fingers on a Texaco road map. Kerouac’s Sal Paradise, planning a long drive through Texas down to Mexico, studied his in dizzied ecstasy: “I looked over the map: a total of over a thousand miles… I couldn't imagine this trip. It was the most fabulous of all.”
In the heyday of the road map, “it wasn’t just about the mode of transportation,” Akerman told me. “It was how people felt about seeing the whole country.”
Nostalgia for that fading feeling suggests the existing maps will continue to trade hands among people like Wayne Stitt, a fifty-three-year-old bus driver from Richmond, Virginia, who has collected 4,241 of them, starting on a family vacation when he was twelve. “And I’m still looking for any one I don’t have yet,” he told me. “I hate to see anything just get thrown away.”
He is not alone. Last month, several hundred members of the Road Map Collectors Association gathered in Indianapolis—a fine motoring town if ever there was one—for their annual convention. A rare Grizzly Gasoline map, expected to sell for more than three hundred dollars, did not find a buyer. But “there were lots of other good maps available, so there was a lot of buying and selling and trading going on,” reported Terry Palmer, a sixty-year-old collector from Dallas. He was particularly heartened by the sight of a crowd around the dollar table, where the general public buys donated maps to support the group’s operations. “There were some young people buying,” he said. “That was neat to see.”
To Palmer, whose e-mail address makes reference to both the Road Runner and Route 66, road maps constitute a document of life’s experience. Upon returning stateside from service in Vietnam, he set out on a seventeen-state road trip, winding from New Mexico through Texas up to Maryland and back through Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Colorado. Aside from hanging on to the maps, which formed the base for a collection now numbering about thirty-five hundred, he came to a decision regarding a proposal. Diana said yes. They are still married. “If you keep a good map around,” he told me, “you’ll never have to stop and ask for directions.”
For those similarly inclined, other sources can be found. AAA, the motor club best known for fixing your grandmother’s flat tire, provides printed maps on request, including the detailed TripTik—something of an ur-Google Maps, now available in app form as well—preferred by anxious vacationers. “There is, and always will be, a great need for mapping and routing information,” said Desmond Jordon, a club spokesman, “even if the way many people choose to receive that information changes.” And Rand McNally produces millions of printed maps every year. Texas, California, and Florida, big states with big tourist attractions, sell the best. “State maps have declined, but not at the rate of the local street maps, which have been more impacted by Web and app mapping,” said Amy Krouse, a company spokeswoman. She expects demand to hold steady. Borrowing a term from computer science, she mentioned two “key use cases”: “sitting around the kitchen table, planning a trip,” and “as a trusted backup in the car—no battery required.”
But blaming a technological innovation for the demise of the highway map may oversimplify matters. The roads themselves have become more clearly marked. The burning desire to see the country by car, in a time of global warming and sharply divided red and blue political states, has cooled. And, of course, there are limits to the powers of GPS.
For the dwindling number of map devotees, freedom of a distinctly American variety lies beyond those same limits. “I think that, deep down, people still like the idea of being out on their own, traveling without any agenda,” Akerman said. “The map is a pretty powerful symbol of that.”
But then maybe the map is more than a symbol. Maybe the map is the thing itself. We have grown disenchanted with the pursuit of wide-open spaces. We have returned to the cities. We have lost the ability to appreciate or even handle isolation. When we must pass between metropolises on the ground, our cars all but drive themselves. We need the map, not to tell us where we’re going, or even where we've been, but to show us, in the distance between those big dots and stars, where we are.