Map dots and beyond

(Journal stock photo.)

My wife and I have had a busy summer of traveling to places both old and new, near and far. Some of the routes were committed to memory long ago while the new ones required some navigational assistance from modern mapping software.

Plugging an address into your phone and setting off on the highway is a far cry from the navigating done on family trips during my childhood. Instead of turn-by-turn directions, finding your way often included turn-back instructions, as in “We should have turned back there.”

Early August is the prime season for similar family vacations. Summer activities like sports and 4-H projects are winding down, leaving a brief gap before school starts again. Fall crops aren’t quite ripe and cattle not headed to market still have plenty of grass. It’s as perfect of time as any to get away, especially if you don’t like the heat and humidity in Kansas this time of year.

There are certainly advantages to having GPS-enabled gadgets at the ready when setting off on a new adventure, but they also come with some handicaps as anyone who’s ever been directed down a minimum-maintenance road can attest. It’s a good reminder that maps are not the terrain.

While there are a variety of options to get you where you’re going today, as a child I know of only one ruler of the road—the Rand McNally Road Atlas. The tattered copy stuffed in a pocket of the station wagon often served as entertainment on family trips. Thumbing through the collection of charts wasn’t as passive as watching the latest Disney cartoon on a screen, but it broke up long stretches of boredom and likely prevented multiple fights with my brother.

At the front of the atlas was a map of the Interstate Highway System, an enduring legacy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It offered both clarity and distortion. In the center of it all was Kansas with New York just a few inches to our right and the Pacific Ocean a few inches to the left.

The broad perspective of the nationwide map narrowed as the pages progressed. State maps included interstates in dark bold coloring denoting their importance. Other federal highways were slightly lighter followed by state highways. At the back, cities of a sufficient size received their own detailed charts allowing me to explore the granular details of places like Chicago, New York and Miami.

Maps are fantastic tools for charting a course in the future, they’re also excellent for telling you where you are and where you’ve been. One appeal of maps is how they allow us to orient ourselves in this grand world while also taking all the complexity present in our three dimensions and simplify time, distance and terrain onto a flat surface.

This simplification allows us to recall the past, chart the future or center ourselves in the present. With modern technology, we’re always just a few clicks away from looking up the neighborhoods we grew up in or finding the perfect beach for that next vacation.

But these replicas aren’t reality. There’s no nostalgia for places you’ve never been, and the lure of daydreams is the possibility of seeing and hearing and feeling something new. For all that maps allow us to see, you’ll miss the adventure if all you do is connect dots on a page.

Greg Doering is a writer and photographer for Kansas Farm Bureau, Manhattan, Kansas, and penned this for "Insight" a weekly column published by the state’s largest farm organization.