Weekend Travel Inspiration – Bill Bryson

Weekend Travel Inspiration - Bill Bryson

Don’t you just love maps?  

I don’t mean the GPS (Global Positing System).  I mean a map.  A real map.  Preferably made of paper.  You know the kind that is way too big and unwieldy to hold on your lap in the car, so you have to find creative ways to fold it covering where you are right now?  You know the map that once you get it folded just right you realize that you are traveling in the fold?  Yes. That map.  It’s both extremely annoying but at the same time familiar, grounding, comfortable.  I love that map.

A few years ago, when the GPS devices became popular for cars, we bought one.  And we used it.  We moved back to Germany, a country we thought we knew really well.  (We forgot that 20 years is long enough for new roads to be created and for old ones to be renamed.) Well, we discovered we didn’t know it as well as we thought.  We didn’t buy a paper map at first.  We thought that our GPS would be all that we needed.  Yet we felt…lost.  Lost is exactly the opposite of what you are supposed to feel with a GPS magically following your car right there attached to your windshield.

Lost.  We were never lost in the way that we couldn’t find our way home.  We knew how to get home. We always know how to get home.  What we didn’t know was where we were.  Okay, yes.  The GPS not only tells you the city you are in, but it tells you the street, and maybe even a correct address, and even more unbelievably a name of a business, a phone number.  Wow!  How could you want more?

We wanted more.  We wanted to know, to feel where we were.  Not just at that spot, that moment.  No, where we were in the country, the world.  Where is this town in relation to where I live.  Honestly.  We drove to the little known Germany city of Aalen where we were chasing down one of the country’s world heritage sites, the Limes Museum (Roman Empire).  It was only about an hour and a half drive from where we were living.  That morning, we got up, plugged in the city name and off we went.  Neither Jim nor I knew which direction we were driving.

In the United States, highways usually have the cardinal direction on the sign.  So, you know that you are driving north on Rt. 7 or west on I-40, but they do not do that on German signs.  As we were driving, we started to have this conversation about where we were.  We just didn’t know.  Then we got even more frustrated.  Why?

Laughing at ourselves, we stopped to buy a map.  A paper map.  A homing device.  Something familiar.  A way for us to know exactly where we were in this vast world.  The first gas station did not have one. Neither did the second or the third.  We couldn’t believe it.  No maps?  What is this world coming to?  We looked around and every car – very single car – had a GPS.  Now, most of these cars were from Germany, and their license plates indicated they didn’t live far away.  Yet, they had their trusty GPS!  I don’t know if they were using it or not, but they had one.  Who needs maps?

Well, Jim and I do.  We persevered, we enjoyed our museum, and we found a map.  Germany is a pretty big country, so there was no one map to show the whole country, but it had one of those spiral-bound book maps.  I like those, too…somewhat.  I realize it allows the map to get more detailed, but remember one of the main reasons we were looking for a map that day is to figure out where we were in relation to everywhere else.  The book map has only a couple of full country maps at the beginning.  It worked.

That day we turned off our GPS.  We went back to doing things the way we loved to do them.  If we are driving to a new city, we take out the map (sometimes on Google) and we plot our route.  Guess what?  Not only do we know how to get there, we have a nice quiet, relaxing ride.  We know where we are in relation to the rest of the world, and we love it.

Disclaimer:  Yes, we still use the GPS. It’s a great tool to find a specific place, like a good restaurant, hotel, or even…museum.  But, and this is a big but, we still love our maps!

How about you?  Have you thrown away your maps?  Is a GPS all you need to get around?













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Weekend Travel Inspiration - Bill Bryson


  1. I’m with you. We never travel without a map. The GPS is great and we always use one – we have too many memories of getting frustratingly lost not to – but we hate not knowing where we are in relation to everything else and for that you can’t go past a good old fashioned map.

  2. GPS, or satnav, is a godsend to me with my totally non-existent sense of direction. Otherwise I would never find anything when driving on my own! However, as a passenger I love to sit with the map on my knee and track where we are, so I agree with you. It’s so frustrating looking at a map on a small screen and not knowing what’s next or where you’ve just been. And I love Bill Bryson, so starting with a quote by him is a winner.

  3. I am so old school that I could never give up my paper maps. I have an old atlas that also includes travel tips and I still refer to it when planning a trip. I only recently got a smart phone so I finally have GPS and I will use it in times of desperation but I still like wandering the old-fashioned way.

  4. My mother used to be a real estate agent, and I loved flipping through her spiral wire-bound book of Houston, imagining what it must be like to live in different parts of town. Many years ago, my cousin and I were driving from LAX to Santa Barbara when our GPS ran out of power, and the car power outlet wasn’t working. Oh my goodness, we almost had to buy a paper map! Luckily, I remembered enough about LA to get us there without one. I still like browsing around a good map, although I’ll sometimes do an online one instead of on paper. Our summer road trip was packed solid because I kept noticing interesting places that “weren’t that far” from where we originally wanted to travel.

    1. Michele, I am also pretty addicted to Google Maps. At work, at any given moment, you might walk in to see me browsing my little corner of the world to figure out where to go on a day trip!

  5. Maybe it’s generational, but I don’t like the blind faith you often have to put in a GPS. In a place you know, when the GPS is taking you the long or highly trafficked or just wrong way you can go where you know you should and let it catch up with you. In a place you don’t know it is easy to program it slightly wrong and wind up in entirely the wrong place. We had to learn in Germany, for example, to choose the Old Town rather then City Center or we would be directed to the business district of a city instead of the quaint historical pedestrian zone. Kids like maps. I think they like the tactile-ness of them. Though my daughter also likes looking at the GPS and saying, “we are at current location.”

    1. Eileen, Kids are adaptable, it’s true. I remember they used to have these maps on plastic that my girls loved. We also laminated maps for them so they could “help” us navigate.

  6. I can do the same thing that is described in this quote. I am one of those who decorate with maps and can be staring at them for hours. The first thing I do when I visiting a city is grabbing a map. I then bring them back as souvenir. I have all the one I used recently in Spain. Some of them have interesting facts and recommendations around them.

  7. I’m old fashioned too. I like to get the big picture of where I am in relation to the rest of the world. I’m also one of those people that has to turn the map according to the direction I am travelling. You can’t do that with GPS, even if you have it on your phone as you turn the phone it rotates back to North.

  8. Ditto! Maps are gone and replaced by GPS except for when GPS doesn’t work and maps are nowhere to be found – only then have I realized the errors of my ways. I try to carry a backup map with me wherever I go, especially overseas, but it seems I’m way too dependent on GPS nowadays.

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