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GPS is nice, but give me a map

Charles Moore • Mar 28, 2018 at 8:30 AM

I like maps. I’m a map guy from way back. While I rely on GPS to get me that last couple of miles, I like to look on a map to orient myself, just in case, but also to know what reference points I need to know. So far, so good. I’ve certainly met a enough lost drivers to know that relying on the electronic maps alone isn’t the best idea.

Decades ago, we’d look at maps a lot, for the obvious reason. I was fascinated by the world out there and how it looked. On backpacking expeditions, also when I was much younger, all we had were topographic maps and we found early on that we were terrible at orienting ourselves. I don’t know how many times we got lost but it was usually routine. Out backpacking, sometimes, you don’t really care. Having the map created a strange sense of comfort.

Nowadays, I find myself wondering and wandering through books of maps and earth-pictures. They become places I want to visit. The Johnson City Public Library has a wonderful book, “Aerial Geology” by Caperton Morton, that is an eye-opening collection of photographs that display geology without the tacit over-burden of political boundaries. At your leisure, in your easy chair, without being pressured to buy something, you can explore North America probably like never before. It makes you want to start a thousand-places-to-see list.

But, don’t get me wrong, I like Google’s Satellite View, too. I think it is a blessing in disguise for kids of all ages who want to roam the larger world. You can read a book about life in New Guinea and then explore New Guinea. You can get a much different perspective of your neighborhood from the air thanks to satellite imagery. But I notice that computer-maps just lack a lot of spacial feeling for when a kid wants his feet on real ground and see real gorges and really see “five-states.” I can assure you that Savage Gulf looks great from space but does not begin to compare to the real thing. There is not one whit of comparison between the satellite view and the real view from Roan Mountain. Or of the river bluffs in Big South Fork.

Open an atlas of the U.S. and follow U.S. Highway 40 from Atlantic City to San Francisco (although some of it now decommissioned) almost straight as an arrow for 3,000 miles! It would take forever to reach the Pacific but imagine the scenery, the diners, the goofy sights! Trace U.S. Highway 41 from Copper Harbor, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior, to Miami. A slice of the continent from north to south, from the lake they call Gitche Gumee to the salt surf of the Atlantic. You can almost smell the two. One road each, through more of America almost beyond the imagination. That’s what you can do with a paper map.

The other thing about maps, however, is they also show us how the world is parceled, which for me creates curious questions. In grade school we might have asked if there was something apparently different in Indiana than in Ohio otherwise why would we have a line between the two and did that line mean you couldn’t cross it? This fixation with places and proper names being too difficult for Americans expresses itself hourly in our inability to distinguish Iraq from Iran on a blank map. And maybe not care, either.

Such details only matter when we got older and wanted to vote or own property or send our sons and daughters off to war, as if we would know where that war was.

The division of Bristol and why Tennessee has these kinks in its northern border are spelled out in “How the States Got Their Shapes” by Mark Stein (also at JCPL). The states’ shapes became what they are partly for the obvious geologic reasons and partly for very fascinating political reasons. This really is stuff you didn’t you learn in grade school!

What would happen if TDOT placed “Butler (submerged)” on the official state highway map in Watauga Lake? Could there be a more interesting shock to the imagination someone looking for a different vacation story?

We mythologize “the west” was tamed by the railroad, or the six-shooter, but I think the west (west of the Appalachians all the way to the Pacific) was tamed by the surveyor and a theodolite. The person who made the maps.

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