Map My Life (the paper kind of map please)

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A while back we had some friends in the car and we were heading out to eat at some place we’d never been, a place down in a suburb on the other side of Denver. I knew where the place was in general based on info from someone who had been before, within the physical city block at least, so as I normally do, I set off to drive down there with no map and good intentions of getting close enough to figure it out.

The physical location of the restaurant actually turned out to be one of those ginormous shopping complexes, one of the 6.8 trillion acre plots with stale and emotionless chain stores en masse scattered about.

I reluctantly merged into the frenzied current of soccer mom piloted SUVs and started my visual search for the restaurant. I made one futile drive around the circumference of the place but my efforts to find the restaurant came up empty. Not discouraged, I decided I’d then enter the gravitational orbit of the nearby planet sized Baby Gap, a celestial subset of the overall retail universe, to see if I could spot our eatery somewhere around there. Well, before I could get too far into that task, our friends began frantically pecking away at their smart phones trying to find a map via the cyber world to solve the mystery of where the restaurant was.

A few seconds of that pecking and then, !BOOM!, they were literally screeching the name of the restaurant into their phone! What the….??? It actually startled me and I thought for sure one of those behemoth soccer mom SUVs was about to plow into me! Then some electronic cyberlady voice thing started screeching back at them saying she didn’t understand the request. More screaming the restaurant name into the phone, more responses saying it didn’t understand, more pecking, more screeching, more misunderstanding…and in the meantime I pulled into the parking area of the restaurant. It was pretty much at that very moment when my decision to stay away from that kind of techno buffoonery was solidified. Sometimes all we have to do is look up from those devices to see what we we’re actually looking for.

I love maps, the kind of maps you can physically unfold/refold and spread out on the hood of the car, the kitchen table or on the ground during a hike. I don’t particularly like looking at maps on the 2.5” LED screen of a smart phone or GPS device. And as I mentioned above, I especially don’t like that those devices can literally tell me when to turn right, turn left, or god forbid, to actually turn around should I go 10 feet past my desired target and be launched into the terrifying abyss of the geographic unknown. “Please Siri, I’m lost and scared, tell me what to do!!!!

I’ll oftentimes buy maps well before I leave on a trip, spread them out on my kitchen table or in the floor and spend considerable time studying them, trying to imagine the “vibe” of the places I’ll be. I not only look at the specific places I plan to go, but I spend time looking at all the places around it. I love to see how things are oriented and how they’re positioned related to natural features like mountains, lakes, rivers and oceans. Oh sure, I could jump on Google Earth and pull up a frighteningly detailed satellite image of the place and even use the tools to tilt the landscape and zoom in so I could see the pies in the window of Mom’s Bakery located right there on Main Street, but I still prefer my paper maps. I love the colours, the lines designating motorways, the landscape relief details, the legends, the smell of the paper…just everything about them. It requires me to use my imagination, the most powerful tool a human being possesses. It’s like listening to a story on the radio or reading a book instead of seeing the movie. It engages me instead of simply entertaining me.

When we traveled to New Zealand this past autumn (spring down there), we went intentionally not thinking about where we’d go until after we’d picked up our campervan. I’d bought a road map and a Lonely Planet book here in Boulder a few weeks prior to leaving, but that was the extent of the travel planning. When we picked up the campervan, the lady on reception asked us if we’d like to hire a GPS unit for the van, but she barely got the offer out before I quickly declined. She got the biggest grin on her face in response to my quick refusal and said with her awesome Kiwi accent, “I like going that way too…good as gold”.

She graciously gave us directions to a local supermarket, saying food would be much cheaper there than on the road, then bid us farewell, great fun and good luck. We knew the “good luck” statement was directly correlated to her earlier inquiry regarding whether we’d ever driven a campervan on the left side of the road using right hand drive, to which I cautiously replied “uhhhh, no”. Yeah, we opted for the insurance.

After stocking our onboard fridge and cupboard with sufficient food and beverage to last us a week or so, we literally sat in the car park of the supermarket, unfolded our map on the table, and set about the task of  figuring out where to go first. Okay, that’s only partially true. I also wanted a few more minutes to re-calibrate and steady my nerves before vaulting our right-hand drive campervan back into the busy traffic of Christchurch. Such a fun little adventure within a bigger adventure.

Looking at our map, we could see the entirety of New Zealand’s south island. We got a feel for the shape of the island, where the mountains were, where lakes and rivers were…the rest were details we’d figure out as we went. Our initial plan was simply to head toward the alps which were clearly visible on the map with their whitish tinted colours nestled between long corridors of green. With a 2.5” screen GPS or phone, I wouldn’t be able to see all that, just a couple blocks radius of where we were at that very moment. I know tech geeks will vehemently deny this, but if you zoom out far enough to see the entire island on the 2.5” screen, or even an iPad, you’d also be required to procure a microscope worthy of the Mayo Clinic Forensic Biology Department to see the slightest detail of a single motorway. Uh, no thanks.

We spent the next couple of weeks digging the map out when we’d stop at remote rural intersections and towns along the way trying to decide which road might take us somewhere else fun and beautiful, which is essentially any direction you turn in New Zealand.  We’d dig it out from the travel wallet or console and show it to locals when asking questions about places to see or places to go. That map was truly the catalyst for some spontaneously fun and interesting conversations with people. I suspect that would never have happened if I’d busted out an iPhone and started making references to cartoonish images on the miniature screen.

Best of all, we’d break out the map late at night or first thing each morning and use it to decide where we’d go next. We didn’t have to constantly pan out or zoom in, we could just look at it in its entirety and decide where we wanted to go without the limitation of screen size. It’d oftentimes simply be a feeling of where to go based on visual characteristics of the map instead of something specific pulling us one way or the other — following our hearts. We’d sometimes get out the highlighter and mark on the map where we’d been the day before and where the next day’s adventure would take us. Yesterday we traveled three inches — today maybe we’ll go an inch —tomorrow maybe eight.

If we were perusing the map outside on our camp table and the winds happened to be whipping, which is ALWAYS in New Zealand, we could use our beers to hold down the corners and never once risk ruining the circuitry of an electronic device after an errant spill. Replacement map, $4. Replacement iPhone, $250.

No, the paper map didn’t provide links to real time road conditions or links to weather forecasts for the next week. However, since we were truly living in THAT moment and not even a week or mile ahead, we could easily look out the window and figure out everything we needed for weather considerations. If it was raining, we’d turn on the wipers. If the road became rough or slick, we’d slow down. Not complicated stuff here. Ooooh, if it was raining we could unfold the map, which was made from waterproof coated paper, to fabricate a makeshift umbrella! Try doing that with an iPhone!

During that trip, we beat our maps and Lonely Planet book into wads of pulp. When I look at the map now, with all its markings and unintended creases, I realize that not only did it serve its purpose of being a useful tool, it’s now become a piece of art specific to our experiences down there. I doubt there’s a mark on there that wouldn’t conjure up some amazing memory of an ocean side campsite, a delicious lunch at some random roadside café or of a mind blowing drive through the alps. Same for the Lonely Planet book since it still has red and yellow sticky tabs sticking out of it. That map is truly art produced through the medium of living life.

Limiting the vision of our journey, both physically and especially metaphorically speaking, to a 2.5” inch LED screen seems as though we’d be cheating ourselves out of the very reason we partake in a journey to begin with. A simple domestic road trip or a long term overseas adventure for me is about climbing out of the box I find myself in from time to time and letting my mind and soul run free and naked, unleashing my imagination, being 100% open to adventure, being pleasantly surprised from time to time and not having everything so defined as to eliminate the need to even think for myself.

Sorry Siri, but I just need my big clunky paper map, my sense of wanderlust and a little free time to find where I need to be in this life.

Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, paddle long, live big.


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