Lost Art of Maps

Do you think kids these days are fascinated by maps. Is there even a chance that a kid knows what a paper map is?

I know as a kid, I thought maps were the coolest things in the world. Folding them was an art few could master, but once I had one unfolded and splayed out, I could spend hours tracing the lines and matching the symbols up on the map with the key. Right there, in that last sentence, most younger folk today would have no idea what I am talking about.

For this generation, a map is something that is fluid. It appears on the screen of their tablet, phone, or GPS device, and moves as they do. Sure, its possible to expand the map and trace the lines between towns, but I am guessing most do not. At least not anymore than is necessary to check the traffic along their route.

That is something my childhood maps did not offer…traffic. Of course, since that was the dark ages, and the population of most of the places I lived was widespread, traffic was not the problem it is today.

If memory serves, I learned most of what I knew before joining the Army about maps from my grandfather, the boy scouts, and self study. There may have been a few classes in school, but since I hated school, I am sure my knowledge came from those other sources.

I really loved looking at the old maps. I mean the really old ones. Not the ones in your grandfathers glove box, but the ones used before the advent of the automobile. I thought it was fascinating how our founders mapped this country without the aid of satellites. How the shorelines’ changed as surveys became more accurate. How the lines that divided the states evolved. Even now, I could shuffle through maps dating from the earliest renderings by a cartographer, to the most recent paper map, and compare the differences. Hours I do not have, but would not regret giving up after the fact.

I am debating whether or not to link the word cartographer to a dictionary site (another definition that’s changed with technology).

After the army taught me to fly, they took map reading and usage to a whole new level. First, our instructors explained that in war, roads, bridge, power lines, and other man made landmarks may not be available for navigation. We needed to learn to navigate using “terrain relief.” In other words, we were supposed to use the changes in elevation, a bend in a stream, a clearing in the forest, to mark our location. Along with that knowledge, the army introduced us to a different kind of map. More like a chart. It still showed us the roads, bridge, and power lines, but we were supposed to ignore those. Instead, we concentrated on the hills, valleys, and waterways.

However, do not take waterways anymore seriously than those power lines. See, I learned to fly in UCLA, (UnCultured Lower Alabama). There are no natural lakes in Alabama. Yet, that did not stop them from obtaining such treasures…no! They would slap an earthen dam across a waterway, and voila, a lake. Well, maybe not voila, it did take time for that little stream to flood a valley and create one of those lakes. I actually watched this process during my time flying through the Alabama countryside. Pretty cool to see.

But I digress.

Not only did the army teach us how to read those charts, but they handed us a pile of them with instructions on how to convert that pile into a map book. This map book contained hundreds of square miles of the Alabama and northern Florida countryside, and it fit in our laps. A quick internet search suggests that we used the Australian map folding technique to make these map books. What my quick internet search did not offer was a picture. These map books are such a closely guarded secrets, that examples cannot even be found on the interweb. Seriously, we had to turn them in after we finished our final tactics flight. Someone stole my map book with just a few flights left. Let me tell you, it was a suspicious eye cast upon me by my flight instructor when I shared that bit of news.

The way those map books worked was like this. You found the page that contained your starting point. Then, as the pilot flew (he or she cannot flip through a map book while flying…that’s dangerous) you followed along with your map/chart. As the aircraft progressed along its route, all you had to do was flip to the adjacent page, up, down, left or right, and boom, there was the next chart. This thing was a work of art. As were many of the covers.

I so dearly wished I still had that thing as a souvenir. I have often thought of reproducing it, just because. I still might.

After the army came truck driving. Truck driving offered a whole different kind of map book. It was called the Motor Carriers’ Atlas. What made this different than, oh, lets say your average Triple A map? The maps offered color coded roads so we knew where we could go, and could not go. It also offered a section that told us the various limits of each state, and most importantly, it told us where the weigh scales and rest areas were.

My first atlas lasted about three months. These atlas’s were large paperbacks. About twelve inches across when closed, and eighteen inches tall. After extensive trips from the door map pocket to the steering wheel, the covers started to tear, and the spine would give out. Duct tape only helped for so long, then it was time to buy a new one. And they were not cheap. Not long after I started, Rand McNally introduced a spiral bound, laminated atlas that was considerably thicker, heavier, and significantly more costly. I coveted one for many months until the day came when I realized it was necessary to replace your atlas with some regularity.

Things change. Roads get built, rest areas are demolished or built, and back then, toll roads converted to freeways (not sure that is even possible now). Most importantly, states would build new truck scales to enforce weight and hours of service laws. They also worked as a revenues source of the state that built them. A driver needed to know in advance where these scales were!

One day, while coming out of Baltimore, Maryland, I was in a huge hurry to get home. Not only was I in a huge hurry to get home, but in the last week, I covered a lot of miles. What that means is, I was a little bit ahead of my log book. To you laypersons, I was a little over extended on my hours of service. After I loaded in Baltimore, I should have parked the truck for eight hours before heading home. But I was heading home, and for reasons I cannot recall, I desperately needed to get home.

Before leaving Baltimore, I pulled out my slightly tattered Motor Carrier’s Atlas, which was a couple years old by now (I was using it far less than in the early days), and checked my route for any weigh stations between me and where I planned to exit the state. The coast was clear and off I went.

I was not more than an hour out of Baltimore when my eyes settled on a green highway sign that said, Weight Station one Mile. What? Quickly I pulled out my atlas and checked my route. Nowhere in that section of I70 was there a scale. At least not according to Rand McNally. For a moment, I panicked, considered stopping the truck right there, maybe taking it off road. But neither was really an option. Those big rigs sucked once they left good solid payment.

The next sign made my night worse, it said Open. As I signaled my intention to leave the freeway and enter the scale, I could see this thing was brand spanking new. I could smell the fresh paint from the freeway.

With great trepidation, I bounced up on the scale and hoped my luck would hold. They would weigh me, and send me on my way. No such luck, over the speakers I heard, “North Star, pull around back and bring in your paperwork.”

I was sunk. According to my math, I was four hours over my limit. They will check my logs, see my willful disregard for the rules, give me a big fat ticket, and put me to bed for eight hours. Whatever was urgently waiting up ahead for me was going to be disappointed.

My logs were updated to within a couple of hours. I might have even logged leaving Baltimore. Where the issue was, if they checked the hours of service log in the back of the book. The officer checking my paperwork did just that. Then he took my log book over the calculator, and started crunching numbers. After he finished, he looked at me, then ran the numbers again. This time he looked at me and said, “you cutting it pretty close aren’t you?”

I nodded.

He said, “you have maybe,” looked down at the calculator, and then back at me, “two hours left.”

Inside jubilation lifted my sunken spirits. I hoped my body language or eyes did not give me away, “Yes sir. The plan was to get to Frederick, and call it a night.” I have no idea how I knew that was the next truck stop, but it was and I did.

“That better be all the further you go,” the officer said as he handed me my log book.

I said something kiss assish, and bolted out that door. I did not stop in Frederick, or anywhere within the confines of Maryland’s borders. Later I double and triple checked my numbers. I was out of hours in Baltimore, and thanked the stars they did not teach basic calculator skills wherever they trained Maryland commercial vehicle inspectors.

That single incident killed any desire I once held for one of those shiny, laminated, spiral bound, never wear out atlas’s.

Shortly after that incident, I gave up long haul truck driving, and kept things local. I kept a couple of maps with me, but after a while you never used them, and I never gave them another thought.

I relish in the convenience of having the world at my fingertips. But I also miss using a string to measure the distance on the map and comparing it with the scale markings at the bottom. I miss judging the size of a town by the color and configuration of the dot that represents those towns. I miss the elaborate compass rose you could find on some maps. Especially the older ones.

Maps were art. Functional Art.

Now, they are just functional.

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