The Trusty Atlas

Back to the days before digital maps

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Price: $17.95

Materials: Paperback, with a durable vinyl cover.

Features: If you must go digital, this road atlas is compatible with the ebook edition.

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If you’re heading out on a road trip this summer, your phone will likely be your guide. You’ll simply ask, “Hey, Siri, how do I get to Yosemite?” and a polite voice will respond with a digital map and an estimated time. It’s all very convenient, but also kinda boring.

Remember the days before iPhones and Google, back when we had to rely on the good ol’ paper road atlas—the kind you bought at Walmart that sat in your car for years gathering coffee stains and memories?

Back then there was no computer to tell you the fastest route. Instead, there was regular math. You added together the mileage between junctions on the freeway then figured out how fast your junky car would go and divided the total mileage by your speed. My old Subaru got angry if I drove any faster that 68 mph, so if I was traveling 250 miles, I figured about three-and-a-half hours, plus a food stop and pee breaks (it was all much slower in the mountains, of course).

There was also total freedom to plan. Instead of blindly following that blue GPS dot, you had full control of where you went. If there were amazing hot springs that took you 50 miles off the most direct path, no digital voice demanded a U-turn when you veered off course.

As I kid I loved thumbing through the atlas on family trips. I’d try and memorize towns that started with X or Z so I could roll them out and sound smart when we played Geography to pass the time.

I grew up in rural northern New Mexico (my town had 80 people) so I loved flipping to the pages that featured big cities, imagining that one day I’d get to live somewhere that had paved streets, traffic lights, and a skate shop.

Like most of you, I haven’t used an atlas for years. First came Google Maps, which I’d print out and carry with me, then came my iPhone and Siri. But I recently read a story on the web where a writer recommended we all carry an atlas just in case we’re in a spot where Google Maps won’t work.

I went out and bought one right away, but not because I’m worried about getting lost. Sure, it’ll be nice to have, but cell coverage is so good these days there’s rarely a moment when I can’t find my way. Instead, I bought an atlas so my 2-year-old daughter and her soon-to-be sibling can pull it out and start thumbing through on our road trips in the future.

Maybe my wife and I will quiz them on some route math or maybe we’ll strike up a game of Geography and be surprised to find out they know of Xenia, Colorado. Or maybe they’ll refuse and demand the iPad instead. Either way, it’ll be there just in case, gathering fresh coffee stains if nothing else.