Here’s why I love maps — which still work when you lose your GPS signal

·3 min read

Tucked in the pocket behind the driver’s seat of my trusty minivan is a collection of paper maps that dates back to the Bill Clinton era. In other words, these analog instruments of navigation are old; so incredibly and wondrously old that, over the years, they’ve served as a source of amusement for the grandchildren.

They’re familiar with maps, of course, the older kids having made their acquaintance in school books. Map reading remains one of those skills that hasn’t grown obsolete with the advent of technology, and treasure maps have never lost their appeal, not even in this era of video games and augmented reality. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as tracing a path from the X that marks You Are Here to a chest full of riches. Google Maps and Waze haven’t found a way to replicate this, I don’t think.

My maps promise no treasure, and I suspect that those that chart the cities in my immediate vicinity — Miami, Miami Beach, the Florida Keys, Fort Lauderdale — are woefully out of date. I don’t remember the last time I referred to one of them. I began using the navigational tools of the 21st century on my smartphone as soon as they became available.

I like these tech co-pilots, their convenience and efficiency in cutting minutes from a cross-town trek. Nevertheless, I admit to snapping back at their chirping guidance when I know, from decades of hometown driving, that a recommended route will require an impossible left onto an eight-lane road from an intersection without a stoplight.

But back to maps, physical maps. Why do I keep them? What do they offer? After all, there are many habits that have fallen by the wayside in the wake of modern gadgetry. I no longer balance my checkbook, for example, nor do I memorize phone numbers. There’s no need to.

Maps are different, however. At the risk of sounding like a sap, which is a role I seem to be playing more often lately, unfolding a map, with its corresponding papery rustle, brings back happy memories. As a child, our family vacations were rare, but when they did happen, they invariably involved a map and AAA TripTik.

Sentimentality aside, practical matters can play a role in map-keeping. GPS isn’t always reliable. I remember a pre-pandemic trip to New York City in which we walked around in circles on our way to Katz’s Delicatessen. Thank goodness The Hubby, who has a much better sense of direction than I do, noticed. A couple of firefighters informed us the skyscrapers were probably messing with our location, that all-important X YOU ARE HERE factor. Apparently, concrete and steel can block GPS signals, much like mountains do.

Sometimes wireless signals are totally nonexistent. Also, phones run out of juice, and though I keep a car charger in my van and a portable one in my backpack, friends have reported negotiating unfamiliar streets powerlessly — and I mean that in more ways than one.

Yes, physical maps can be unwieldy. Folding them back up can be a challenge, and you need space (and sometimes both hands) to lay them out properly. But their benefits, I believe, outweigh those minor inconveniences. Nothing matches their bird’s-eye view of the terrain. Nothing, not the impressive graphics or turn-by-turn directions of a GPS, offers such a helpful look at the lay of the land and how one fits into it.

As I write this, we are planning a road trip to four locations in two different states. Though we’ll be using virtual navigation to get there, the recent unfurling of a map on my desk gave me an unexpected rush of pleasure. But it also occurred to me that I might need a newer map, just in case. Unlike the apps on my phone, a paper map doesn’t update automatically. Bummer.

Ana Veciana-Suarez
Ana Veciana-Suarez

Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at avecianasuarez@gmail.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.