GPS, Google Maps & the Trucker’s Atlas


Please note that this post is meant to be taken in jest, please do not get offended if I offend your offenses.

Today we’re going to journey down the magical path of learning, to discover knew horizons, reveal old secrets, and maybe even dust a few cobwebs off our brain cells. First, let’s begin by defining the idea of travel. According to Google, travel can mean:

  • undertake a journey or trip for pleasure
  • the act of going from one place to another
  • travel from place to place, as for the purpose of finding work, preaching, or acting as a judge

How interesting. Now, barring the likelihood that you’ll be traveling to find work as a preacher or judge (can you just show up in a town and announce yourself Judge?), and hoping that if you plan to travel, you’ll get some amount of pleasure out of it, we’re left with the most obvious of definitions: the act of going from one place to another. That’s an easy idea to wrap your head around, but do it without some aid and you’ll find yourself learning the definition of another word: lost. (Which of course, can be as much fun as anything!)

For most of us, though, we’ll want to get to particular places with names like “Grand Whatever” and “Mt. Somewhere” or “This and That National Park.” To do so, we’ll need either a keen knowledge of navigation via celestial bodies (sure, the sun sets in the West but which one of those lights is the North star…you kind of already need to know which way North is before you can find it) or a man made tool. In my experience, there are three such tools stuffed in varied quantities inside most travelers’ rigs: some type of new fangled GPS thing meant to suck the manhood right out of you, the Atlas, which makes men out of meatballs, and Google Maps, which is somewhere in between and no where near either at the same time.


Let me just say it: GPS is not cheating. Many people who use GPS are fine upstanding citizens, who’s nametags read one of the following: wuss, wimp, wonk, cheater, big cheater, what’s the point, and which one is my left hand? Now of course, this is just my own opinion, but let’s try and look at it from the point of view of the writer. There are many reasons to travel: business, to acquire new land, to convert the native people to some form of Christianity, to visit every Walgreens in the tri-state area, and so on. For myself, however, travel is about seeing what I haven’t seen, being where I haven’t been, and the adventure that comes along with all of that. Now picture yourself at an amusement park. The Great Grandaddy is the fastest, most awesome rollercoaster in the world: it takes you from 0 to 600mph in 13 nanoseconds, into the upper atmosphere before plunging you to the bottom of the ocean and then safely back to the line so you can hop on again and really get your money’s worth. Riding that rollercoaster has always been your dream, but when you get there, you decide that buying a shirt that says “I road the Great Grandaddy” is just as much fun.

My point? Sure, you can tell your grand kids one day that you once lived on the road, roughing it in the woods, making your way through the vast American landscape and carving a niche for yourself in history alongside the Kerouacs and Swartzs, but when they see that little video you made and hear the British woman’s voice in the background saying “Turn…left at Route 66” how will you tell them that no, you didn’t have a robotic English girl on board who was missing half of her frontal cortex, you were simply letting a satellite hovering over the planet tell you where to go?

The Trucker’s Atlas

Or any decent atlas, really. I have been fond of the Rand McNally boys in the past but have recently picked up the American Map 2010 Road Atlas (I know, it’s only 2009 but I’m already seeing the future of this great nation – thank you Obama!). And actually, unless you know how to read a Trucker’s Atlas, you may want to start with the Rand McNally. Though the Trucker’s version will show you the ins and outs of life on the road with a giant killing machine that can’t fit into most places you want to fit it into, McNally and co. will make it much easier to figure out how you’ve gotten lost and how to get back, all while sipping your morning coffee over a cigarette and yelling at the kids to quit blinking so loudly.

I love a good atlas for so many reasons: the paper feels great, it’s big and you can make long term road decisions without trying to move around a screen or wait for some British bird to recalculate. The joy of a good yellow highlighter running over everywhere you’ve been or might want to go is nearly as good as ice cream and sex, and if you’re riding shotgun, you can learn countless excellent facts about state birds, how the West has 10 National Parks for every 1 back East, and ponder why Ohio takes so damned long to get through when it’s actually a pretty small state compared to Montana or Kansas.

An atlas can also teach you one very serious, very useful thing: how the US Highway System works. Did you know, for example, that when traveling west on the Interstate and many US Highways, that the little green mile marker signs on the side of the road count down to either the end of that highway, or the state line, whichever comes first? And that US Highways (typically 2 laners — that is, 1 lane each way — that often pass through towns and the most scenic routes) are numbered from lowest (Highway 1 runs from Maine to Key West, Florida) to highest (Highway 101 which follows most of the Pacific Coast) as you travel East to West, and from North to South? So US 20 will be further north than US 50. Good to know. The opposite holds true for the Interstate system. Did you even know there was a difference between US highways and the Interstate system? Get an atlas and you will in no time!

Google Maps

You could also lump those printed maps AAA gives you into this group. I’m referring to both Google Maps on your computer, where you print out the directions, as well as what you might have on your Blackberry or iPhone. Let me be clear: using Google Maps on your iPhone is almost as bad as using a Tom Tom. If we were to judge it on a scale of 1 to Adultery, it would easily be like kissing your wife’s neighbor’s cat.

However, there is a time for Google Maps, and that’s when you’re practicing the delicate art of navigating a city or town. Atlas’ provide maps for some cities, but they’re not usually detailed enough to find smaller side streets and unless you’re somewhere between a Chicago-sized town and a Johnstown, PA, best of luck to you buddy. Of course, not having Google Maps or an iPhone or a GPS chip implanted in your eyeball doesn’t mean that you can’t find what you’re looking for, after all, most towns, cities and even rural farming areas come with a little thing called “the Locals”. Let’s take a few scenarios:

Trying to Find the Youth Hostel in Chicago, Illinois

Google MapsAsk a Local
MethodType in “Youth Hostel, Chicago, Illinois”Pull up to first hipster or foreign looking person and ask “Do you know where the hostel is?”
ResultShows you a list of all hostels in the city and provides you with exact directions.The hipster thinks you’re trying to mug him and runs. The foreign person doesn’t know English.
WinnerGoogle Maps

Looking for a Good Pizza / Beer Place in Omaha, Nebraska

Google MapsAsk a Local
MethodZoom into the area you’re at, and type in “pizza”Find anyone with a mohawk, Slayer t-shirt or who looks like they might know Eddie Vedder and ask them where you can get a slice and a pint.
ResultDisplays a dozen results with names like “Pizza Hut,” “Papa Johns”, and “Dominos.” One result for “Harry’s Local Pizza and Pukers.”Of course, punkers, metalheads and antiquated grungers all know, without a doubt, where to get the best pizza and a PBR within a 5 block radius of wherever they are.
WinnerAsk a Local

Need Directions to the Local Movie Theater (Harry Potter 19 Just Came Out!)

Google MapsAsk a Local
MethodType in “Movie Theater” and click “Directions to here from current location”, more or less.Ask the girl behind the counter at the 7/11
ResultGives you step by step directions as to how to get there exactly, including times, distance and the option to drive, walk or take public transportation.Girl replies, “Um, well, I don’t know. Wait, no, it’s a right. Take a right down here at the Smoothie Barn, then the third or maybe fifth left after the second light. You’ll see it, it’s the place with all of the movies listed on the front.
WinnerGoogle MapsAsk a Local

So as you can see, there are times when Google Maps just can’t be beat, but then again, when else will you get to approach a guy who very well may be an original member of Def Leppard?

I hope this trip through technology has served you well, and if any of you had the fortitude to read this far, please do feel free to let me know of any alternate methods (such as building your own compass out of a pickle and two spent nuclear rods).