Memories · The Last Half Century

Reading the Road

In the age of GPS and smart phones, I can’t help but wonder if paper map reading is a lost art. I have to admit I can’t remember the last time I used a paper map to help me locate a destination. It’s much easier to put the destination into the map ap on my phone and let the screen give me turn-by-turn directions. Yet, like riding a bicycle, I can still open a paper map and instantly know how to use it to get from point A to point B. It’s a skill I learned decades ago.

I remember one long road trip I took with my dad where we climbed in the car and he tossed a paper map at me. “See if you can follow along on the map,” he said as the map landed next to me on the seat. (Those were the days of big cars with big bench seats that looked like living room couches.) I opened the state map and stared at the blue line marking the freeway we were traveling on. I traced my finger along the line until I spotted the last town we drove through. “There,” I replied as I tapped the map.

“That’s the last town we passed,” my dad remarked. “Tell me where we are now.” I moved my finger along the freeway on the map north of the last town. “Somewhere here,” I answered. My dad glanced at the map and smiled. “No. I want you to tell me exactly where we are.” I looked at my dad, then the map. “Exactly?” That’s when my dad shared a secret of the freeway with me.

“Use the mile markers,” my dad instructed. He pointed to little green signs along the shoulder that showed how many miles we had traveled since the road began at the state line, then explained that exits were numbered according to the nearest mile marker. He told me that if I subtracted one exit number from the other, it would tell me the miles between exits. I glanced at the next exit number, looked at the map and calculated the miles to the next exit. My dad told me the miles on the car’s odometer and presto, when we reached the next exit it was about the same number of miles I had calculated using the map.

Once I mastered that, my dad told me to calculate the miles to the state line and tell him when we were close to driving into the next state. A couple hours passed when my dad finally said, “I think you missed the state line.” I stared at the map and told him, “No. We’re about five miles from the state line.” He glanced at me with a frown, “You sure?” I looked at the map, then at the next mile marker. “Positive.” My dad smiled. “We’ll see who is right.”

A few minutes later we approached a large sign that welcomed us to the next state. “See!” I said, pleased that I mastered the art of map reading. “I guess you were right,” my dad nodded. I couldn’t tell if he knew all along, we hadn’t crossed the state line or if he was testing my confidence in my own abilities. It was a moment where I learned to trust my own instincts.

© 2021 CGThelen

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