I picked up a road atlas the other night to see where I-75 comes into Kentucky, then backtracked page by page to find my way there. “Turn to Page 190 for Tennessee” it read, then “Turn to Page 10 for Alabama.” Sort of like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, but in reverse.
Often as a little boy, I would thumb through the family atlas and imagine what the roads looked like in person. How wide was the interstate where it comes into Chicago, for instance, or how lonely is the two-lane along the high plains of the desert Southwest? I didn’t always know what I wanted to do when I got there, but I did always know I wanted to go.
This time, though, passing through the pages of that map book’s descendant, I was reminded of places seen and people met. One morning in northern Indiana I was hurrying to an event at an outdoor writers’ conference that I was helping put on. Our executive director had called and said the guy who was supposed to have brought targets to the range had overslept, could I find a store, buy some, and get them out there? I had driving directions but I found a shortcut on the map. It took me through a small bedroom community where I saw Chicago Bears tailgating paraphernalia like I’d never dreamed existed. Vans with custom paint. Cars bearing every conceivable talisman. One motor home had a 12-foot-tall likeness of Mike Ditka’s mug painted on the side. The families had been buying season tickets together for generations, I found out later, and they offered me an invitation to stop by a home game that I hope to redeem one day soon.
Another riffle of pages found the northeastern corner of New Mexico where I’d met Don the Cowboy Cook, Larry McMurtry’s fictional Pea Eye Parker come to life. He wore canvas pants with galluses, a remarkably stained long handle shirt and a hat that had battle scars older than most of us in camp, me included. The quality of his food was second only to his tales. The land lay on two sides of Highway 56, a two-lane stretch of blacktop between Gladstone and Clayton, towns that warrant the map’s mention only because they’re the only things there.
Nobody loves the convenience of automated turn-by-turn directions spoken aloud more than I do, but I doubt I’ll ever give up my maps altogether. There are some stories the voice of a GPS just can’t tell.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.