walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

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When Eric was traveling in New England, he wanted to know if I knew of any good maps for the area. I should have realized that if he couldn't find one, they probably didn't exist. And now, for a slight digression on nouns.

First, area, in this case, region, neighborhood, vicinity. When I was starting to drive, driving more than a few minutes in any direction got me lost quite quickly (largely because I had been confined before I started to drive, as my mother was incredibly paranoid about kids on bicycle, kids on foot, etc., even before it was trendy, or at least normal, to do so). Over time, the length of time, and, therefore, distance I could drive in any given direction expanded, particularly after I started hiking. The cross-country road trips, needless to say, continued me along this path. So to speak. By now, my sense of vicinity is anything within 2-4 hours of me and/or the nearest city whose greater incarnation has a population numbering in the millions. Anyone familiar with New England realizes right here there's a big problem.

Second, maps, by which I mean a physically small, but detailed representation of an area, usable by me, in a car, to find places I want to drive to and, once there, usable by me, on foot, to not get lost in the course of walking (skiing, snowshoeing) to some other place and back. Eric and I are native to the West Coast and young enough that our major experience with good maps is the Thomas Bros. brand, aka Thomas Guides. We're also used to the West Coast versions of Delorme, which include a helluva lot of trails marked on the map. Again, anyone familiar with New England is either laughing, or experiencing some form of disbelief, envy or confusion.

Where does one buy a map? Well, when one has used a road atlas to navigate oneself into a large metropolitan area, and the AAA map for that city is insufficiently detailed to find a friend's house (and one does not have a laptop and access to the internet and/or mapping software that would answer the question), almost any gas station with a c-store will supply 2 or perhaps 3 incredibly detailed local area maps and an employee capable of finding the gas station's location on the map. Bookstores often sell maps. Costco sells maps. (Map stores sell maps. Boy do I miss Metsker's. Need to find one out here, I suppose.) In New England, as it happens, the hardware store sells map, as do the supermarkets. At about this point, even a dimwitted Seattleite is getting suspicious.

They sell Delormes at the Supermarket. Really. And you know why? Because they may well be the best map available (this is a bad sign). Something called Universal makes spiral bound maps, aimed at home buyers, loaded with ads for realtors, organized by township and incredibly hard to navigate if you don't know where you are (by town) and where you want to go (by town). At least the Delorme is a grid. Arrow (a better version of what Universal does) and Universal aren't on a grid, and they don't have a region map to spot the page numbers. You pick up the town name off the route map, and then you look that up in the index and find the page number. Really. It's insane. At least if you fall off the edge tracing a street, it gives you the next town over and a page number. But the towns are in the book alphabetically.

As if that weren't bad enough, in an area loaded with hunters, fishers, hikers, XC skiiers and god only knows what else (to the point where you can buy a spiral bound map of all the topos for a tiny little town. At the hardware store.), the Delormes show precious few trails.

To sum up: I'm not used to everything being so close to me in space (Boston is maybe 40 miles away) and so far away in time (and yet, with no traffic to speak of, it takes an hour to drive that distance, staying within 10 miles of the speed limit the whole way). The maps available to help me assume a vast knowledge of the area (names and locations of towns with respect to each other) which I don't (yet) have. The people around me have a lot of trouble even understanding what I intend to do (it took me a while to even understand why the TV ad where the guy goes to Maine for lunch to have lobster was funny; it's not like it's that far to drive, and I've gone from Seattle to Vancouver, BC for dim sum. More than once.).

I expect, now that Rand McNally has bought Thomas Bros., that over time Thomas Guides will dominate the entire US, and my life will be much better, at least when I'm driving. That's their plan, and they've got the money to do it, and lord knows there's no real competition out there. I wonder, though, if they will leave New England to the last. Why worry, other than my longstanding certainty that Murphy will, inevitably win? I think the real explanation with New Englanders tolerance for bad maps lies in a larger reluctance to replace a perfectly good and useful item. Even when the replacement is vastly better. It isn't precisely a matter of cost. It's more a matter of figuring out what to do with still-useful old item. After all, this is the place that has the category string too short to save.

I can only hope the population of people who regularly visit New England will supply enough of a market for the maps that I will get to buy one too. My neighbors, I feel certain, will look at the Thomas Guides, think, wow, that's nice. But unless they have teenage children to foist their old, but usable, Arrows, Universals and Delormes on, they'll put it right back on the shelf.
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