The patient, yet persistent voice of a woman guided me, my wife and friends on a 1,400-mile road trip recently.
She faithfully offered reminders like, “In a quarter-mile, use the right lane to take Exit 9 to merge onto Alabama 271 South.” If we got off course, she’d say, “In 300 feet, make a U-turn onto Jenks Avenue.”
We attributed any wrong-way incidents to the GPS woman — whom we nicknamed “Lola” — overhearing our occasional derisive remarks about her directions. (After 10 hours in a van, conversations with a computerized tour guide seem quite real.)
Usually, we could rest assured we were following “the best route,” thanks to the technological wonder of the global positioning system — the U.S. government’s satellite-based radio-navigation network. Lola even alerted us to traffic snarls on the interstates and suggested short detours to avoid the mess.
GPS instills confidence that a motorist is never lost. There’s always a U-turn up ahead. (Plus, guys don’t have to endure the humiliation of asking other people for directions.)
Still, do we ever really know where we are, in a big-picture sense? And aren’t some of a traveler’s most intriguing adventures found while getting sidetracked?
That’s the beauty of an old-school, printed road map and its depictions of roads, bridges, railroads, rivers, parks, airports, colleges, hospitals, police posts, hospitals and bus stations. The mere sound of its creased papers unfolding in the front seat of a car evokes a sense of daring in the safety of our 21st-century GPS travel bubble. A front-seat passenger becomes the map reader, and navigation involves a collaboration between humans, with the risk of miscalculations.
Surprisingly, millions of road maps can still be found in vehicle glove compartments across America. Those hard-copy maps — two feet wide and three feet long — may serve as a complement to a motorist’s GPS, or their primary navigational tool, or their trip-planning document.
Dan Neman travels by printed map. The St. Louis resident pulled his car into the Clearcreek Welcome Center and Rest Area near Terre Haute on Interstate 70 last week. As with most Hoosier rest areas, a large Indiana highway map hangs behind glass at the Terre Haute stop. Several glanced at it while passing through.
“I don’t do GPS,” Neman said, emphatically. “I like maps. With a map, I know where I’m going, and I can visualize it. GPS annoys me.”
His wife refers to the GPS voice as “Smart Lady,” Neman said, laughing. “I hate Smart Lady.”
Another print-map adherent, John Jean of Michigan, also eyed the posted Indiana map. He and a friend, Carl Schank of Grand Blanc, Michigan, were driving back to their home state from Arkansas.
“I like to see where I’m going and where I am,” Jean explained. “If I see a town, I can pinpoint where I am.”
On that trip, Schank was doing the driving, and he prefers his Onstar voice-guided, turn-by-turn, GPS navigation system. Schank barely noticed the printed map on the wall. “[The Onstar] has already told us it’s 68 miles to Indianapolis,” he said. “It’ll let you know a half-mile before every turn.”
Maps help in rural areas
Dozens of folded Indiana highway maps fill slots of a wooden shelf in another room at the welcome center, free for the taking. Indiana’s Office of Tourism Development has published one million print maps for statewide distribution in each of the past three years, said Amy Howell, the office’s communications director. Hoosier road maps remain a popular item at the State Fair, she added.
And they serve a purpose beyond nostalgia. “There are so many rural places in Indiana where GPS does not work, and a paper map is needed,” Howell said. “The map is used to offer residents and visitors guidance when traveling the state.”
AAA Hoosier Motor Club provides maps to members of that travel planning and roadside assistance service. Users can plot the entire course of their road trip on the print map and refer to it, while also using GPS and AAA’s automated TripTik planner, explained Mary Zimmerman, manager of the AAA regional service center at Indianapolis. “For me, it’s easier to see, and say, ‘OK, where’s the halfway point?’” she said.
Handheld maps also offer a backup to GPS, which isn’t infallible. “GPS can still send you in the wrong direction,” said Zimmerman, who’s in her 27th year with AAA.
And, motorists with an itch to explore by veering off the “fastest route,” as GPS defines it, often find print maps handy, too. In that case, print maps beat GPS. “You can’t really explore [while relying just on GPS] and say, ‘Oh, you know, I want to get off the interstate and see what this town has to offer,’” Zimmerman said.
Such open-road adventures and historic byways are passions for former Terre Haute resident Jim Grey, who writes a regular “Down the Road” blog online.
So are relic road maps. Grey, now a software engineering firm manager in Indianapolis, has a collection of 50 printed road maps, spanning from 1904 to the 21st century. Grey’s collection also includes several editions of the “Automobile Blue Book,” an American road guide published from 1901 to 1929.
Maps and guides “take up a pretty solid section on my shelf,” said Grey, a Rose-Hulman grad.
“This is one of my esoteric hobbies — transportation history,” he added.
Road maps loom rather large in that history. Today, historians can use old maps to locate bygone roads and rail stops, helping them determine how towns emerged and perhaps faded. Forgotten landmarks or “points of interest,” typically noted on road maps, can be rediscovered.
“You can learn a lot from an old road map,” said Chris Salvano, map curator at California State University at Northridge.
That university’s library houses the Oviatt Library Map Collection with 3,800 historical road and tourist maps from around the world. Most of those maps came from the same sources that most Americans acquired them — gasoline companies like Standard Oil, Esso, Texaco, Chevron and others, as well as AAA, Rand McNally, rental car and tire companies, states, cities, banks and tourism “booster” organizations, like a chamber of commerce.
Campsites preceded motels
Road maps gained popularity right along with America’s passion for the automobile, beginning in the 1920s and revving up to full speed in the post-World War II era when families piled into station wagons and hit the open road. For decades, most motorists got the maps for free at gas stations.
“They kind of highlight a moment in time, in which you get to see a cultural or roadway landmark that isn’t around anymore,” Salvano said by phone from the CSUN campus near Los Angeles.
Consider the 1966 “Map of Terre Haute” published by the Terre Haute Board of Realtors. That map — one of several collected by former Terre Haute resident Earl Volpers — features a dotted line for the “Proposed Interstate Highway,” meaning I-70. Construction brought that interstate through Terre Haute the following year, shifting the city’s commercial hub from downtown to the south-side I-70/U.S. 41 intersection.
Four decades earlier, motorists encountered roadways far unlike the pavement of I-70 or even its east-west predecessor U.S. 40.
In Grey’s map collection, the 1924 “Hobbs Grade and Surface Guide of the National Trails Road” describes the type of road surface mile by mile. The 69.8 miles of the “Auto Trail” from Indianapolis to Terre Haute, for example, included stretches of brick (near Brazil, and between Putnamville and Mount Meridian), concrete, “fine concrete,” asphalt and gravel. The road reached a “T” at Reelsville.
“To drive from Indianapolis to Terre Haute, you needed turn-by-turn directions,” Grey said. Road maps offered that assistance long before GPS, though changes occurred between printings, and errors weren’t uncommon. In fact, some map makers intentionally included nonexistent roads to see if map competitors were simply copying theirs, Grey said.
The Hobbs guide also recommended camp sites between Indy and Terre Haute. (Travelers could camp in Terre Haute’s city park, the map says, though it contained “no conveniences as yet.”) “This was the way most travelers lodged for the night in those days,” Grey said. “Roadside motels were not yet a thing.”
Today, collecting road maps is a thing. The Road Map Collectors Association has more than 200 members and convenes yearly at the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum at Hershey, Pennsylvania. Some collectors hunt for rarity, like the 1931 Wadhams map (only one is known to exist) or the Sinclair Oil map of Chicago. “That’s probably one of the ones everybody wants,” Judy Aulik, Chicago area resident and past president of the collectors club, said of the Sinclair map.
A few map distributors employed colorful artwork, like Clason or H.M. Gousha. The latter publisher had “just a little bit of aesthetic sense with their maps, but they also tend to have been more accurate,” Aulik said.
Printed maps also reveal a place’s backstory. Many included original names or nicknames of roads, like U.S. 41 as “Dixie Highway” or U.S. 30 as “Lincoln Highway.” Maps also showed travelers to Indiana — which didn’t adopt statewide daylight saving time until 2006 — the locations of the state’s various time zones.
“It gives you a better idea of the history,” Aulik said.
After all, a history question might throw “Lola” off.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.