August 2012 Issue
My Ohio: In Praise of the Paper Atlas
A GPS may be handy, but a gazetteer provides not only directions but also context.
To fend off accusations of Luddite antipathy toward technology, let me clearly state that the mobile GPS unit mounted on your car’s dashboard is one of the great blessings of the digital age. Pocket-sized links to the nation’s vast array of orbiting satellites, TomToms, Garmins and their ilk are a boon for home health aides, pizza-delivery drivers and cable guys from coast to coast.
That said, for navigating the rural wilds of Ohio or any other state, I remain devoted to the paperbound book of maps known as an atlas. In particular, for me, it’s the state-based Atlas & Gazetteer series published by DeLorme since 1976. An 11-by-16-inch volume of maps and recreational information, my DeLorme not only leads me from points A to B, but also promises “Fun and Adventure at Your Fingertips” and delivers on that promise. The atlas gives me both location and context — not just my destination, but also the curiosities I might find along the way: covered bridges, lighthouses, museums, fish hatcheries, nature centers and the remnant earthworks of ancient Ohio natives.
I can hear the collective protest of the technophiles — that all the information contained in the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer
can be found in modern GPS units if one purchases and uploads the proper software. And that the data is easier to search, provides topographic relief and can be updated instantly online.
Sure. But a handheld GPS unit with an advanced topographic package will cost you hundreds of dollars for a screen the size of a saltine cracker — unless you want to spend hundreds more to upload the data to your tablet or laptop computer.
I, on the other hand, can be mighty bewildered as to my whereabouts in Adams County, but if I find a wide spot in the road I can pull over and dig through the coffee cups and discarded fishing gear beneath the driver’s seat and find a battered DeLorme that I bought in 2004 for the current price of two Starbucks lattes.
If I stare at it long enough and pay attention to my surroundings, I can probably sort out that I’m on Brier Ridge Road, which tracks the Buckeye Trail a bit before turning into Stony Lonesome Road and then to Chicken Hollow Road. (Reading the road names is reward enough!) But if I want, I can head back to St. Rte. 41 and then slide up to Cincinnati Pike and take it over into West Union where, if I am lucky, the little diner I found there last visit will still be open for business. And I won’t have to worry about whether tall trees have blocked GPS satellite signals or that my polarized sunglasses will make the screen difficult to read.
I realize that this personal preference for paper maps could be a mere expression of nostalgia and that a traveler with the proper digital gear could have just as rich an experience with a GPS as I have with my atlas.
But here is a trend I find disturbing: Most people I know who use GPS devices have neither sophisticated software nor advanced knowledge. They simply plug numbers into their device and listen to the disembodied voice tell them which turns to make. As a result, they can navigate between points A and B but know nothing about the land through which they have journeyed.
“Oh, you went to the Air Force Museum. Is that on the east or west side of Dayton?” Blank stare. “You want to get to the state park? Follow this road to the north until you get just past the county line.” Blank stare.
In my work with a private conservation organization I sometimes find myself giving directions to some remote trailhead at a nature preserve or state forest. “Just give me an address and I’ll plug it into my GPS,” is the common response. When I tell them there isn’t an address, they respond with suspicious disbelief. I know I probably could give them the GPS coordinates, but unless they are backpackers or sailors, most people don’t know their GPS units well enough for that. So they ask again, as if I’m slow-witted or hard-of-hearing. “Just give me the address.”
We live in a world where most every place has been explored and mapped, and yet, happily, not all have been given an address. And for the fortunate wanderer in all of us, there just may be a coffee-stained atlas beneath the car seat that will help us find these places.
Randy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Columbus.