Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Fading Art of Map Reading

What's your favorite way to figure out directions to a place? Maps app? Google Maps? Waze?

I'm all for using my smartphone apps now, but I remember how fantastic I thought the portable Garmin GPS Navigator System was when I first bought it many, many years ago. Just plug in my destination, and it gave me turn-by-turn instructions in real time. Miraculous! It was a pain, though, whenever the suction cup gave way, and the entire thing tumbled onto the floor just out of reach on the passenger side. Luckily, I could haul it over to me by grabbing onto the power cord.

Before that, I relied on whenever we traveled. My road trip folder (an actual, physical folder — not an icon on a screen) would be packed full with printouts of detailed directions to get us to each and every destination. If there was an especially tricky portion, I'd print out a map of that particular intersection. As we drove, I'd look at the odometer and mentally calculate the mileage total for the next turn. Being prone to motion sickness if I was the passenger and not wanting to take my eyes off the road if I was the driver, I'd memorize the entire set of directions before we headed out.

Every now and then, I'd be in the car without my printouts, and I'd have to pull out my roadmap. I remember the horror I felt one day when I realized that, after years of being nearsighted, I had to move the map away from my face in order for the road names to come into focus. Oh, my aging eyes! About a year after that, my husband and I were driving around Houston, the city where both of us grew up, and pulled out a map. Being new to the whole "old eyes" phenomenon, neither of us carried around reading glasses. Much to our dismay, no amount of moving the map closer or further from our eyes made the smallest print readable.

Navigating by map

On our trip to England a few months ago, we brought along a road atlas. Looking at an atlas was so much more enlightening than if we had passively relied on a Maps app to tell us where to go.
This Texas gal amused herself by looking at all the quaint British names of the many villages. I marveled at how the towns were densely packed on each page. In comparison, the vast expanse of nothingness in the Salisbury Plain around Stonehenge made me wonder. Was all that emptiness hiding something? Ancient alien landing sites, perhaps? As we drove through the grasslands towards one of England's most iconic landmarks, the answer became apparent. It's the location of a Defence Training Estate.

On the Salisbury Plain, beware because the tank will always win

Using a road atlas seemed so retro but a good backup plan in case if we didn't have phone coverage. We started off strong, and used the atlas exclusively. During the four hour drive from York to London, I had to follow the A1 freeway as it snaked its way from page to page. Sometimes, I'd try to look ahead but needed to use my finger to bookmark the page we were actually on.

As it turns out, I'm rather lousy as a navigator. I'm really good at using my memory to return to places that I've visited before, but I tend to use the words "right" and "left" interchangeably. My husband is never quite sure which way he's really supposed to go unless he glances over to wherever my hand is pointing.

Having to read a map in a car is my major downfall. My predisposition for getting carsick while reading is a big hindrance, especially on winding country roads and roundabouts. After about 20 minutes, I'm worthless. My husband would ask where to turn, and I'd just moan "I can't look. I can't look." So, I'd close my eyes while I attempted to overcome the nausea, and next thing I knew, I would nod off to sleep. Then, I'd wake up and have absolutely no idea where we were. I'd look at the village names on the signs we passed and attempt to locate our position on the map.

Once, hubby kicked me into the back seat and brought our then 16-year-old boy up to navigate. He eventually started napping in the passenger seat, too. (I wonder where he gets it from?) Our 13-year-old just barely escaped his chance to guide us through the highways and byways of England. Eventually, we started relying on our iPhones again and used the road atlas as a backup.

I wonder what the next generation of travelers will be like. Will they be able to get around using a traditional map after growing up being able to rely on smartphones to give them real time directions? Would Harry Potter have been able to use the Marauder's Map if there wasn't a dot showing him "You Are Here"? I know that my kids did map reading worksheets when they were in primary school with all the questions of what route to take to get from Point A to Point B. But, it seems most kids don't get much real life exposure to finding their way using a paper map.

My Girl Scout troop would rather run around a campground higgledy-piggledy hoping to randomly come across our cabin. Or else they want to backtrack all the way to the last signpost we passed to figure out which way to go. A few weeks ago, I had to wrangle the troop — all 6th grade (Year 7) kids — into standing still long enough to get their bearings. I pointed out the pavilion where we stood and the tennis courts behind us. I showed them how to turn the map around until the pavilion and the tennis courts on the map were oriented the same way to each other. "Now," I asked them, "which way should we go?" They got it right, so perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

When was the last time you used a paper map?

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  1. We are still the old paper map readers - far too many temptations out there to explore to limit ourselves to a small mobile phone screen that shows me where I am and where I need to be. We use it only as a backup and as seldom as possible. And yes, I can relate to a lifetime of nearsightedness that moved into an inability to read the map (and other small print) . . .it is such a shock to the system to realize you've reached 'that' age! ;-)

  2. I'm sad to admit that I suck at reading maps and have never been a good navigator. I always relied on mapquest too and now just my phone or googlemaps. #wkendtravelinspiration

  3. I use paper maps when I can't get 3G to feed my phone's map app :) .

  4. When I'm out and about exploring a place I tend to rely on my phone to get me back. Still I love using a map when I get the chance as I find them weirdly fascinating and will often find places I wouldn't normally have visited otherwise. I think I'm on that threshold between the generations :)

  5. contented travellerNovember 25, 2016 at 4:41 PM

    I don't know my left from my right which is problematic with map reading, BUT if I turn the map upside down I do ok. Last time we used one, was a road trip in the US this time last year.

  6. My daughter likes looking at the road maps when we are on long drives to track the routes. My husband hates navigation directions and really wants to still use maps. I always program the phone. Then he tries to make the map big enough to follow that instead of the instructions. While he figures it all out we usually miss our turn. so in places we don't know at all I navigate.

  7. We bought a GPS about 8 years ago and ended up using it way too much. After two years we realized we no longer really knew where we were. Yes, we had the GPS so we knew where we were going, but we had lost that sense of knowing where we were in the larger picture of the world around us. We didn't ditch the GPS altogether. Instead we now use a mixture of paper, google, and GPS (in that order of importance). I've also found it can be very hard to find a paper map for sale in a gas station anymore. #wkendtravelinspiration

  8. We are definitely map people, probably a legacy characteristic from our youth in the Scouts. Of course we have a GPSr as a backup plan, but we very (and I mean VERY) rarely use it. As you touched upon in your post, maps not only show you where to go, but give you a much better feel for the environment around you; when discovering a new region, there really is nothing better. (Actually, one of my upcoming posts will be about maps... stay tuned! :) )
    Thanks for the interesting read! #theweeklypostcard

  9. It is crazy how much things have changed. I do worry about kids being so reliant on GPS and I am even getting that way too, especially now that I learned you can use google maps when you don't have a signal by downloading specific areas. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

  10. Like you I get carsick very easily but unlike you I find it a great advantage in terms of my navigational skills. I know that I can't do more than glance at a map without feeling a wave of nausea so I have to keep track of where we are every moment of the journey. That way I never have to do more than glance at the map. When my husband navigates it is nothing for him to spend 10 or 15 minutes scanning the map in order to work out where we are. I don't think GPS devices will ever replace paper maps. We rely very heavily on GPS's now when we travel but I still like to have a paper map available. You never really get a sense of where you are with a GPS and planning a route is almost impossible - you are absolutely at the mercy of whichever route the device chooses for you.

  11. I was never a good map reader. But for the invention of the GPS I would be constantly lost when I go to a new place. I have to say though that being able to read a map comes in very handy. You can't always count on a GPS. It happened that we got the wrong directions from it a few times. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  12. I am a terrible map reader. Terrible! I praised the invention of SatNav even though I can't necessarily follow the map on the screen (either because .. well I just can't follow it!) or because it's fallen onto the passenger seat and I cannot see it ... at least the voice still guides me through my blindness! If I do have to have directions, I prefer to log onto aarouteplanner and type in my A to B destination and it will give me a print out of what I need to do. I cannot remember the last time I had to read a map, but it was a disaster! You are right though, the age old art of map reading has been lost, thank goodness my hubby is excellent with maps otherwise we would be wandering around in circles all our lives getting no where fast lol. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  13. I use Google Maps but I'm still quite partial to the good old fashioned map! Especially in parts of Fiji where there's little mobile coverage! GPS is great and it's a shame many of us have forgotten how to use a map! My parents used to plan every single trip out with a map (to the point of overkill!) so I think I inherited their map-reading skills :) My husband can't understand it though, he's 100% about technology! #weekendwanderlust

  14. I'm fairly good at map reading except I do get motion sickness as well. My only major problem apart from that is I miss the finer point like One Way Streets, lol.

  15. I am a fan of paper or printed maps. I even use them to adorn my walls at home and at work. Like you, I like to study them and get familiar with certain areas. I still used old fashioned maps when I travel to unknown cities. I do not know, they make more sense to me. Plus, they are the only way to go in "wild" area were there is no cell reception. #TPThursday

  16. This is just too funny - we got terribly lost trying to find Stonehenge and I, too, got kicked out of the navigational seat by my then 16 year old son. I'm not so great on navigation either but I do love looking at maps. I find them so interesting - I just don't want to have to read them and navigate!

  17. While I share your problems with car sickness, the need for reading glasses, and the inability to keep track of left vs right, I tend to be a paper map person. Especially when going from city to city, I think it is easier to see all my options (and know where I can take side roads) than just following the fastest way on google maps. However, for the first time ever we had a real nav system in our rental car in the Baltics and it did make things really easy most of the time. I could get used to that. . .


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