Last week in Part I, I told you how I had purged a giant pile of analog media that I’d accumulated over several decades, including all of my old slides, negatives and photographic prints. I can get by just fine with the digitized versions of those hard copies, which are now residing in the landfill. However, there are two analog collections I’ll be keeping indefinitely. The full effect of these items can be realized only on paper; their electronic cousins fall well short of the mark.
I’m not a fan of eBooks or audiobooks. To me, reading is much more than absorbing the author’s words…it’s a sensory experience involving—among other things—the feel and the smell of well-aged paper and cloth-covered boards. Those sensations may be inconsequential to many readers, but they greatly enhance my enjoyment of books.
I’ll say no more about the allure of hardcover books because I’ve already addressed the issue in one of my earliest blog posts, which you can read here: Kindle? Not In My House
And you can browse the following link to see other books from my shelves that have been featured in this blog: Carl’s Library
Now, on to what I really want to talk about today…
Maps & Atlases
Frankly, I didn’t read fiction or fantasy in my youth; I was drawn to the encyclopedia, to dictionaries, and to books dealing with science and nature. And for no particular reason that I can point to, I became fascinated with maps. More than just the occasional glance, I would actually read an atlas, visiting it repeatedly, poring over every inch, memorizing place names, studying topographical features. In grade school, I scored highest in the class at naming all the states and all the countries of the world on blank maps that simply showed the shape of their borders. Long before I first drove a car, I knew where most places were located and which roads connected Point A to Point B.
Enter the Pontiac in 1990, and my exploration of the continent moved from the printed page to actual roads and highways. On my earliest trips, I kept the navigation simple with the classic Rand McNally Road Atlas, handed out for free each year by my auto insurance agent. Hiking in remote areas was the next ingredient to be added to my adventures, and it was immediately clear that I needed much greater detail than the road atlas could provide. So I began buying rolled topographic maps (aka “quadrangles”), which I had to order by mail from the USGS and the Geological Survey of Canada.
Detailed topo data became much easier to haul around once the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer line hit the market. They were released slowly, one state at a time over several years, until all 50 states were represented. No longer did I have to buy those rolled quads; here in one handy atlas was all the key data for an entire state—all the topography, every place name, every dead-end dirt road in the middle of nowhere.
Then I discovered the beauty of our national forests and grasslands, which led to a whole new collection of maps—the Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) provided by the US Forest Service and available at ranger stations near each grassland and forest. And I’ll give you three reasons why these maps are indispensable; three key pieces of information you can’t obtain by looking at the desolate prairie that surrounds you:
1. Our national grasslands are a chaotic jumble of private and public land, with heavily checkerboarded boundaries. There are no signs marking these divisions; the MVUM is the only way you’ll be able to differentiate the public grassland from private property.
2. No signs once again for the areas approved for dispersed camping—my favorite way to spend the night when traveling in the West. The MVUM shows you the location of the dispersed camping zones.
3. The MVUM is your best tool when trying to identify the exact location of Forest Service “roads,” many of which are nothing but the hint of an indentation angling through the dry grasses of the plains.
Now I’m fully equipped with all of the navigation data I could possibly need. On any given western road trip, my vehicle carries about twenty pounds’ worth of atlases and folding maps…even today, in the age of GPS. Why?
First off, let me note that I’m using the term GPS in this post as a catch-all for its numerous forms: vehicle-integrated GPS, dashboard GPS, handheld GPS, Google Maps and Apple Maps and other digital maps, whether in a browser, in an app or as downloaded files, whether on a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, brain implant, etc.
And my goal here is not to deride GPS; it’s a great tool for its intended purpose. Visiting a city for the first time, looking for an unfamiliar address, trying to reroute around a traffic jam, finding a restaurant, gas station or hotel while traveling…GPS is very helpful in these situations, and I use it myself now and again, such as earlier this year while visiting friends on the East Coast. But there’s another way to travel…the Riding with Carl method of wandering aimlessly along lonely, dusty roads, seeking silence and solitude in the unpopulated corners of the Great Plains and the boreal forest of Canada. And in that context, GPS is the wrong tool for the job.
GPS wants to lead you to a specified destination via the fastest and most direct route possible using heavily-traveled highways and streets; it will not help you in your quest to intentionally “get lost” in the backcountry. Having analog maps and the ability to read them will allow you to find that two-track road which leads to the backside of the mesa; chart a course—by vehicle or on foot—to an unnamed pond or the headwaters of a creek; discover places of interest that most people would bypass. My habit of scanning atlases just for fun has allowed me to visit several intriguing, out-of-the-way locations. No one told about these places, nor did I see them mentioned somewhere online—I found them simply because they were noted on a map.
Yes, all of the paper maps I carry are available in digital form (you can access MVUMs for free on the Avenza Maps app). Additionally, there are several hiking and trail apps out there to help you navigate in the wilderness. So why choose a paper map over a smartphone? Here are some practical reasons why I don’t like to rely on GPS in the field…
One very basic issue involves sunshine. Of all the smartphone models available, I’ve yet to see one that can compete with direct sunlight; even jacked to 100%, the screens simply aren’t bright enough to display all of the detail that I’m able to see on a printed page.
Connectivity may not be a problem for those of you who live in metropolitan areas, but I can testify that there are still large parts of the desert, the plains, the Mountain West and the Canadian wilderness where cellular and data signals do not exist. That’s fine with me. It feels good to be offline while immersed in the wild, and I don’t want to see a cell tower erected on every butte and mesa. True, some navigation apps allow you to pre-download all of your mapping data so you can access it while offline, but that’s not the case with every app or device. Personally, I think that digital mapping is great as a backup option, but I prefer analog navigation as my primary source of info—a source that’s not at the mercy of a missing data signal or a depleted phone battery. (And with tech being prone to freezing up or losing its connection or running out of juice, I also recommend carrying a rugged analog compass—something I always have with me whenever I’m in the backcountry.)
What I dislike most about smartphone navigation is that it offers such an impractical field of view. In a navigation app, the map data is presented in layers. Let’s say I’ve zoomed in to get the fine details of a very small local area. If I pull back to see that area in the larger context of the surrounding terrain, the detailed layers below vanish one by one. This means I’m constantly pinch-zooming in and out to determine where one point or feature is in relation to significant trails, roads, towns or other landmarks; I’m unable to view the entire picture at once. Maps and atlases give me everything in one convenient package…the big picture and the fine details, all available at a glance. With my many years of map-reading experience, I can gather the information I need much easier and much faster than I can when working with images on a tiny screen.
Interesting to note that DeLorme is more than an atlas maker…the company was an early player in the market for digital maps on CD-ROM and then went on to produce their own GPS units. In 2016, they were acquired by Garmin—one of the biggest names in the GPS business. And Garmin knows they have a good thing going; the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer line is still in print and still selling very well. I’m glad that Garmin and their customers respect the enduring relevance of analog maps.
Mapping our route to Pawnee National Grassland.
Photo above by Sarah S.
Like the appeal of hardcover books that I mentioned at the top of this post, there’s something about paper maps that I find fulfilling…an aesthetic quality that is lost in digital representation. More than just navigational tools, maps can be appreciated for their beauty, as with a painting or any other work of art.
My large wall maps showing the Pontiac’s North American travel history, 1990-2021.