Many of you reading here, being quite young, will never have used an actual paper map or book of maps.

It’s a well known fact that most women who haven’t had the advantage of being a Girl Guide or participating in orienteering competitions, are not blessed with a great sense of direction. You can include me in that group. Even though I was a somewhat reluctant Girl Guide for a period of time, it didn’t improve my navigation skills. Or my camping skills, come to that, but I digress…

My disinterest in map-reading was not helped by the fact that my own father never learned to drive a car. When my mother passed her driving test, she was delighted. She came off the Valium and wanted to drive all over the country. Too bad the City of London was in her way of most of the time. England is a troublesome place to navigate if you’re not going to or from the capital. Back then it was usually easier to go through it. In those days, maps were large sheets bigger even than A3 paper, that could, if you happened to be ambidextrous, be folded back into their original neat envelope sized package. This was rarely achieved in our car. Dad was designated navigator. We would hand him the map, and I would hop into the rear to play my supporting role as back-seat driver.

If you’ve never had much experience on the road, it’s hard to appreciate the fact that the driver of a car needs advance warning of a change in direction, particularly when they have no idea about their route. As a man, Dad may have been much better at reading maps than we were. Not only that, he knew the streets of London like the back of his hand. The wiliest taxi driver could not fool him. If anything, he had more “knowledge” than they did. But his loud and indignant exclamation “Left!! you should have turned left there!!!” was not very helpful when, not having been able to react to the belated advice safely, we were destined to a 20 mile detour on a dual carriage way. His understanding of traffic flow was limited. When left to herself, my mother’s strategy of “let’s just follow the car in front he’s probably going to the same place that we are” was hit or miss, mostly miss.

The Ministry of Transport later solved this tricky problem by putting a ring road all the way round the city, so that it didn’t matter if you turned the wrong way at Heathrow, you still ended up roughly near home somewhere in Essex.

It was easy to lose your place on those big maps, so they tended to get folded this way and that, and wherever you wanted to go would be right on the edge of the fold, if it hadn’t been torn away altogether. Then one day, some unknown cartographer must have had the idea of chopping the maps into pages and putting them in a book. Brilliant! Now we could just tear out the page we used the most, and once we knew our way around it, that page would get lost. No matter. Knowing our immediate environs, we would only need the rest of the book if we went on a long journey. On those occasions our destinations persisted in locating themselves beyond the edge of the page, and naturally enough, the next page was rarely the one that followed on. It is a testament to my parents’ marriage that they ever arrived at the homes of their far-flung family, which they always did, in good humor even if in need of a stiff drink, which our relatives could be relied upon to provide.

Enter the iPhone and the iPad. Thank you God! Steve Jobs must have known a thing or two about map-reading females and how they were fed up with twisting in their seats to face the same way the map did, or constantly turning that book around in an attempt to orient themselves at their current location, struggling to visualize the journey to the desired location. Sometimes it was just easier to ask directions of a local. And when we would be told to “just go up to the top of this road, then turn right, left and left again, you can’t miss it”, it was that “can’t miss it” phrase that distracted us, and prevented us from remembering whether it was right left left, or left right right. Or wait a minute, it might have been left right left, better have another look at the map, because the local has disappeared. But first of all I need to turn it upside down. The difficult question that presented itself at that moment was, well, “Where exactly are we now?” We dashed to the nearest corner with a street sign and stopped to look it up in the index. You know what? We were lost.

Yes, Mr Jobs knew us better than we knew ourselves when he insisted, above all other considerations, that the screen on the iPad needs to be able to turn itself the right way up automatically. Someone at Google was pretty clever too, to make sure that the electronic map always finds North and puts it at the top so that we don’t have to contort ourselves any more. But the most magical, the most unbelievable and wondrous thing about electronic maps is that they know where we are now. Not just where we started, or where we’re going, but where we actually are now. I just love that little blue dot. Then we even get a choice of routes so we can decide. Now you may love your GPS Navman or your TomTom, and it too knows where we are, and tells us the way to go. It may even give you an overview, but it doesn’t let you decide.

That’s why I love the electronic map on my iPad. I know exactly where I am with it and where I’m going.

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14 thoughts on “The Art of Map Reading

  1. Hello Maddy,

    You took us on an adventurous journey from (bad)good old days to good new days. Jobs and Google have made life easier for most of us in terms of maps and travelling. I have no first hand experience, so i am blabbering based on what I have heard. Your article is so interesting and believe me I can relate. In one such journey there was a great conflict because a friend who was driving was always lost because of another friend who was too late in giving instructions. The friend who owned that jeep and was giving instructions thought that the friend who was driving was wasting his fuel on purpose, though, actually it was his mistake-as he was slow and often wrong in tellig about the directions. They ended up having a big brawl and the driver friend left and ran away mid-way during the tour and this ado affected their lives for next 6 months in which they didn’t speak to each other. So I can very much relate to how your dad and you would have felt as back-seat drivers.

    You have painted a great picture and it is always a great joy to read your articles, though I am guilty of not visiting very frequently. I wish you a wonderful day ahead. Stay blessed!

    Love and light ❤
    Anand 🙂

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  2. Thanks Anand. I have recently told a friend to get out of my car because of giving me unasked for instructions lol. Believe me I am NOT normally that strict, I would just put up with it, so she was quite shocked!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. When my husband and I were first married, we had to use maps to navigate and that was usually my job! I used to love looking at the map and following our progress on the road! Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great read! I still like to have a hard copy of google maps in case my phone battery dies on the way. Hope that doesn’t make me a Luddite! I love a highlighter on a a paper map! If my blue dot is not working I just put my tongue out and turn the map as I follow it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Maddy, I love your writing style, it makes your work a pleasure to read. This is a great post, funny, typical of many experiences the reader can relate to, and interesting. Best wishes, kathie

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  6. oh my!what have I been missing!Why am I not following you? Love the way you write, and this one really resonated with me and my relationship with maps 😉
    Turtle Hugs

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  7. I have a great sense of direction, but can not seem to figure out how to follow a map if it doesn’t tell me which way I am pointing lol

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  8. Lol…so humorous and nostalgic! Seems like everyone was navigating…and no one was! I have to admit to not being able to fold the old ones…but loving my atlas! I use the GPS and maps in our car’s console, but if we are going long distances (and I want some quick alternate route due to traffic, I love my atlas, still. I guess that says something about me and my age. In fact, I recently learned they are no longer going to even teach map reading in school, gone the way of cursive handwriting. So long Palmer method. Farewell maps. Hello Siri!

    Liked by 1 person

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