So what does the map say?

Mangroves at the southern boundary of Everglades National Park

In a few days’ time I’ll be donning my big hat, a linen shirt and worn-through cut-off denim shorts. I’ll be in the depths of the Everglades again and despite having been there many times I’m spending hours poring over maps and atlases, planning routes, checking out small roads for anything that looks interesting and marking tracks and hiking trails. What I’m doing, as I always do, is indulging myself in anticipation of a forthcoming trip – reading the map.

Maps fascinate me. I don’t know of a time when they didn’t captivate me and stir my imagination so I’m taking them to bed with me and absorbing detailed information over cups of tea in my office; they’ll be beside me at dinner, in a stack on the coffee table and, of course, a constant companion in the smallest room.

A map of the Everglades showing Lake Okeechobee to Bahia Ponce de Leon and Whitewater Bay in 1859. Although the old U.S. Army forts are gone the area designated as Indian hunting grounds remains as reservations, housing, retail outlets and, er, Miami. It’s overflowing with wildlife, natural wonder and historical sites yet a SatNav in a car I drove through here once instructed me to ‘turn west onto Tamiami Trail at junction 25 and continue for 87.8 miles’ without mentioning anything on either side of the road. This is from the Library of Congress map division.

There’s real joy in reading a map, in examining small details and discovering something that had evaded one previously, in gaining what I think of as the ‘big picture’ and it’s because of this that I’m perplexed when I find someone has driven from point A to point B by following directions provided through a gadget on the dashboard. I’m not against the provision of important traffic information – far from it – but for me it’s essential that I choose my route and find road junctions rather than being told what to do when I encounter them. I just don’t get the attachment to SatNav instructions as it’s very important to me that, along the way, I don’t miss – even if I don’t intend to visit – a church or a building, a natural feature or a place of interest that isn’t highlighted because it’s off the route and not relevant.

Driving patterns change, of course, and I’m comfortable with a new generation of drivers taking ownership of the M25 queues, the endless rows of traffic cones, increasing fuel costs and diminishing road maintenance as they ‘continue on this road for the next one hundred and fifty kilometres’. In some ways, however, I can’t avoid the feeling that the monotonous tones and garish graphics of a SatNav that places value on reaching a destination without distraction are metaphors for a lot in life today. I’m by no means a Luddite but how many new drivers today will suffer the dubious and bitter-sweet agony of watching his wife reading a map upside down so that the picture faces the right way? How less rich will a relationship be if you don’t have to make up after an argument because a husband didn’t ask for directions?

Many years ago I met a chap who carried in his car a collection of Ordnance Survey one-inch maps that covered most of England. His neatly-stacked box held, literally, dozens. They all looked grubby and well-thumbed until a close inspection showed that the margins and plain areas weren’t actually dirty – they were filled with hundreds of tiny notes in neat, small handwriting. Over years of travel he had carefully recorded the memorable minutia along the routes of innumerable journeys such that his scribblings ranged from roadside artefacts and ancient buildings to uplifting vistas and barmaids’ knockers. Each time he turned the ignition key he was beginning an adventure and his maps were an intrinsic part. They were more than a mere means of finding directions between two points. In a counterintuitive attempt to improve the place to place ‘driving experience’, SatNavs will now provide sightseeing software that is not only portable, allowing you to walk away from your vehicle while retaining contact with your virtual companion, but which also records where your vehicle stopped, in case a short time in un-conditioned air disorientates you.

In Robert Harris’ book ‘The Ghost,’ the eponymous character, a ghost-writer, finds himself in a vehicle following the GPS route used by his dead – at that point presumed murdered – predecessor. In the movie version of the episode, a Teutonic and efficient female voice urges him on until he arrives, a long way off the beaten track, at the gates of an isolated house deep in the woods of New England. It’s a pivotal point in the plot and, to me, all the more sinister because of the unemotional and slightly disassociated tones emanating from a little piece of electronic gadgetry. It seems perfectly reasonable, however, for him to ‘turn left at the next junction and continue for one hundred and twenty metres’ even when it does send him down an unpaved track in the forest.

Whilst that particular journey was crucial to the pace and tension of a novel it is perfectly normal for people to suspend usual levels of caution and self-preservation as they blindly follow the instructions that a SatNav gives them. Turning left or right at the next junction when a gadget tells you to has proved to be dangerous and sometimes fatal and although I’m never surprised at how witless people can be I am astounded that apparently otherwise sensible individuals will state – usually in evidence – that the SatNav was to blame. We could perhaps have accepted that as the case in January 2012, when a coronal mass ejection – that’s a solar flare to the less scientifically verbose – threatened to take down parts of theGPSnetwork. That’s when I expected roundabouts to be blocked for hours while hapless drivers circled, anxiously awaiting instructions on which exit to take. Alas, there were no reported incidents.

I’m looking forward to my trip and know some of the routes through the ‘Glades by heart now but I’ll be taking a few back roads and will be off the beaten track so maps are essential. Although it’s a vast place I will eschew all efforts by the car rental company to impose on me the very latest, interactive, high definition, comprehensively-programmed SatNav unit. I love my maps and using them is part of the adventure. No, I don’t want one in my car unless, of course, it sounds like Sean Young. In that case I’d go more or less anywhere it told me to.

A Black Vulture at the side of the road...
...and a Sherman's Fox Squirrel in the dry pineland at the north of the park.

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