The Other Side

Cartography Old and New


Emerson observed in one of his early essays that when we reflect on our lives, “behind us, as we go, all things assume pleasing forms, as clouds do far off.” He was 40 years old.

At that age, I wasn’t looking back at far-off clouds behind me. Satchel Paige had warned, “Don’t look back. They might be gaining on you.”

Mrs. Fisher, the elderly character in Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel “The Enchanted April,” outlived all the famous people she knew as a child. In a sense, she’d outlived herself. She wanted only to be left alone to sit and remember. I get it: some drizzly February days on the KP are best spent sitting and remembering.

Once you’re old enough to have a past, but still young enough to remember it, the people you’ve lost loom large behind you. Their presence, after all, was a big part of what made the past so good. Pleasing forms, indeed.

Technological innovation has left us with boxes of discarded gadgets that were superseded by new, improved ones. Remember transistor radios, typewriters, cordless phones, modems, roach clips, remote controls, VHS tapes, DVDs and all the other archaeology out in the home midden? Even a rusty coffee can full of bent nails is more likely to have something usable in it.

Last winter, A. and I drove around Florida for a week. We hadn’t been in The Sunshine State since 1972, when we slow-poked along at 45 mph in a VW bus rigged out as a camper, with money enough for gas and food, but not an overnight stay at a 6 Dollar Motel.

Fifty years later, we found ourselves rocketing in battery-powered silence down the interstates in a rented EV. It came with that big display on the dash where the little GPS arrow crawls up the screen. The she-who-must-be-obeyed female voice firmly prompted every turn en route to the next destination.

Satellite technology saved us from wandering around lost in terra incognita. It was great.

But still, we couldn’t help missing something from the old trips. Back when Tricky Dick was still recording everything in the Oval Office and this long-haired driver was on the lookout for state troopers wearing mirror shades, the passenger would have held an open road map.

“How far to Fort Myers?”

“What if we took Florida 41 instead of I-75?”

Looking back through the mist of memory, I see the pleasing form of a beautiful passenger holding a folded-out road map.

Time travel whiplash back to 2023: “Let’s get a map!” she said.

Our lives hanging by a thread, I careened across two lanes of traffic for the exit with a big gas station sign, cutting off a pickup flying a Confederate flag. Fortunately, we weren’t Wyatt and Billy in “Easy Rider.” The gracious truck drive tipped his Skoal baseball cap respectfully at the crazy white-haired guy who may have been virtue signaling but sure hadn’t used turn signals. Hey! It was 21st-century Florida, so he was used to senior citizens’ antics on the highway.

Inside the convenience store, the young immigrant at the cash register flanked by the lottery tickets and ponies of 5-Hour Energy Shots didn’t seem to understand the question, “Do you have a Florida road map?”

I thought it might be a language issue. He looked like someone whose native language was Urdu or something.

Then his eyes lit up in sudden comprehension. “Ah! Peppa map? Sottie. No. Not here.”

I might as well have been asking for a museum exhibit. Like a buggy whip. Or an Allman Brothers cassette tape.

It took a while to sink in that paper maps had gone the way of ashtrays, the three-martini lunch, sharkskin suits, sock garters and the Republican Party.

We took turns dashing into gas stations and tourist offices looking for a good old-fashioned road map. No luck. People smiled indulgently, pitying the absurdity of such a request by the hopelessly outdated.

For the rest of the sunny trip, the GPS display was our road map. It was trustworthy, and it got us everywhere we intended.

It turns out, though, that maps are more than just tools for getting you there. The online maps in our cars and phones are actually navigation tools, an upgrade to the celestial navigation used by the Phoenicians. The best you can say for GPS is that it’s functional — at least when you’re navigating.

On the other hand, every paper map is potentially a treasure map. With it, daydreaming is never far away. Your imagination traces the roads you’ve traveled and the ones you might follow to who knows where. It’s not so much about where you are as where you might be. There are realms of gold on that road map. Among its paper folds are the roads not taken that have made all the difference.

Getting lost looking at a road map is a feature, not a bug.

It’s a familiar story about us and our tools. It takes a new, improved one to show us what the old one was good for.

“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Sometimes it takes a new parking lot to uncover the paradise you didn’t notice while you could.

Dan Clouse lives in Lakebay.