The end of the paper map? Surely not!

 "I think we should go here, here, and here."

You can probably imagine this road-tripper’s response to a recently-discovered story about the death of a map shop in Indianapolis. After running their shop for almost 30 years, Tim and Dayle Gravenstreter ran the Odyssey Map Store, where shoppers could browse through maps numbering in the thousands that would guide travellers through hundreds of countries around the world.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people,” Dayle Gravenstreter told me one autumn afternoon before they shuttered their doors for good. “African cab drivers who point out where they’re from on the map, a lot of military families, people going into the Peace Corps,” she said. “Everyone has a story and I’ve enjoyed listening to them all.”

There’s something about maps that appeals to us—the promise of discovery, of places to roam. Now, of course, we seem to see maps most often as decor, as any two-minute to Pinterest will testify. Though most folks rarely use a paper map anymore, preferring instead the guidance of a GPS, we can’t seem to resist their allure.

Yearning. Texas, Route 66, USA. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Your GPS has NO idea where this is.

Of course, that preference for new technology has led to the shuttering of Odyssey:

Customers planning major family trips had been the core of Odyssey’s business, but in its last remaining years, those people stayed home to do their research on the computer. Map collectors became the primary base, but antique globes and reproductions of 17th-century seafarers maps couldn’t keep the doors open. Dayle pulled one of the reproductions from the shelf, lovingly pointing out specific details, like the scary-looking sea monster trolling the southern Atlantic Ocean. Besides the map’s aesthetic appearance, she just likes the feel of it in her hands.

“I like to see things on paper, to get that larger view that you can’t get from a GPS screen,” she said.

Dayle lamented that many younger people might never know the pleasing heft of an atlas or the musty smell of an old glove box map; that old technology is no match for the instant gratification of a Garmin’s lifeless drone telling you where to turn.

Dayle and the article’s author, Rob Annis, are correct. Having a paper map or atlas will not only serve you well if you end up in a dead zone (or if there’s a cataclysm of some sort), but the old-school explorer version gives you a big picture. Though we do have a GPS, for the road trips we take, we never use the darned thing; it’s paper maps, map books, and atlases all the way unless we need to find gasoline or coffee Right Now. Besides, it’s just plain fun to pull over, spread the map against the dashboard, and figure out which way to get where we’re going.

Using a map, we are much more a part of the process, deciding to see what lies along that old US or state highway, able to plan as zig-zaggy a trip Watchman. Pre-1933 Route 66 in Oklahoma.  Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights you like via highlighter or whim or the desire for an all-forest trip. They give us the opportunity to discover unknown places, too, with their noting of historic sites, parks, and cemeteries (I can’t be the only one seeking out cemeteries). We can scribble notes onto them, mark spots we’d like to come back to—and places we couldn’t get to today, but intend to try reaching someday. Maps allow us to have a sense of adventure as we follow them, because many times we’ve no idea what, exactly, we’ll find along this road, much less whether or not it’s paved or so terrifyingly unpaved that we breathe a heartfelt prayer of thanks upon leaving it (been there, multiple times).

We can’t exactly pull out our GPS to show folks where we’ve been. A map, on the other hand—well, the old map I’ve embroidered with the travels Hubby and I have taken together never fails to elicit excited comments what and questions from visitors.

Don’t give up on paper maps, readers (I mean for your car, not just as well art and lampshade covers). I imagine map shops like Odyssey are becoming rarer and rarer, but it hardly means what they purveyed is unimportant.

A GPS has never inspired anyone to hit the open road.

A map, on the other hand, is the siren’s call.

Welcome to 2009. No panicking! Here's the game plan.

3 thoughts on “The end of the paper map? Surely not!

  1. I agree that paper maps are great. I love them. I like using them. I like looking at them. I even like using them as wall decoration.

    Knowing how to use a map (not just in a car, but with a compass and on foot) is a dying skill that should be taught to everyone. However, it’s been years since I’ve really done so. On the road I generally plan out any unknown trips via google maps and know where I am going specifically so I don’t have to fiddle with a map on the road. On the fly, sometimes I’ll fire up the turn by turn navigation that comes on my phone.

    Even out in the woods where I find maps to be so much more important, I’ve gone to the digital. For me it’s just more handy and accessible. Pulling a GPS out of my pocket and being able to see a topographic map is much easier than pulling paper out of my pack.

    I embrace both worlds. I wont let the paper map and compass skill go forgotten, but I’ll use the technology for its expedience.

    • JP, I think many of us are the same way—we have and use both. Having done a lot of travelling on Route 66, I’ve found paper maps to be invaluable because it’s not on GPS systems at all. (My phone’s navigation is iffy, particularly on cloudy days…)

      GPS is wonderful, truly, and I’m hardly against it—I’m famous for getting big-time lost because I miss my exit and two hours later find myself in a different state. Still, there’s something exciting and romantic about a paper map. Especially if you’ve just picked it up from the visitor’s center!

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