Just before I got behind the wheel of my car for a recent road trip to Kansas City, I clicked the map app on my smartphone and plugged in the address of that night’s hotel. Then I breezed along, glancing from time to time at the blue line that represented Interstate 35 on my phone’s screen, reassuring me that I was on the right road, headed in the right direction.
Somewhere in Iowa, I realized that the blue line wasn’t cutting it. When I passed an exit for Boone, Iowa, a town where a beloved aunt once lived, I wanted to know how far off my route the town would be. I began to wonder what gems lay just off the freeway. But the app wasn’t about to tell me. The green on either side of the blue line was all unnamed, indistinguishable land.
I was not lost, but I did not really know where I was.
I longed for my dog-eared road atlas, with maps that trace small county roads, call out each tiny town with its own dot, reveal each stream and lake. Armed with such a book, a traveler can stretch her legs at a state park, veer off for lunch in a small town with no McDonald’s in sight, wander with a sense of her place in the world. By comparison, my phone map app seemed soulless.
Without a printed map, we lose context for the places we travel through. We also give up the certainty that even if we drive out of range of the satellites that beam radio waves to our phone’s GPS, we will know where we are.
Once in Kansas City, I relied again on the map app to get me to a restaurant. I drove in what seemed like maddening concentric circles. Clearly, there was a more direct route. I should have done that other thing that has gone the way of the road atlas: ask the human at the front desk for directions.
Send your questions or tips to travel editor Kerri Westenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on twitter @kerriwestenberg.