Hard copy, big picture – nostalgic for maps

Short stories

A state of ennui sets in, and we decide we need to quit the city and stretch our vision to a far horizon. Just for the day. It is all the time we can spare this weekend, but we need to get away, to breathe.

With no real plan in mind, and with a few minutes to spare as my partner readies himself, I duck into the office to rummage through the top drawer of my filing cabinet.

This cabinet sits mostly dormant, a memoir of our history together in the form of an odd assortment of documents – vet bills from 1989, my old school reports from the 1970s, instructions on how to use long-dead household appliances. Some of it is handy and even necessary, some of it is merely sentimental, but mostly it consists of files of useless debris that I will sort out ‘one day’.

One of the more useful files hanging therein is one containing maps. All sorts of maps. I have always loved looking at maps, plotting and planning routes to places filled with as yet unrealised promise. Years ago, I recall making inquiries about studying cartography. I wish I had, but for some reason I decided not to go ahead and went off in a very different direction. I suppose it was a fork in the roadmap of my life.

I rifle through the file and find what I am after. An old map for the Scenic Rim, south of Brisbane. I haven’t looked at this map in some years. I unfold it carefully to take a look. It has been bent backwards and forwards along its creases and at each corner small holes are starting to form. The corners are a little dog-eared and there is a coffee stain on the front cover. Maps are fun. Before the digital age, they were often produced by oil companies for sale at petrol stations; they have a myriad beautiful tiny symbols that confer plenty of really useful information. I refold it and shove it in my handbag. It’s time to go.

Our car has a GPS system. And it is a GPS that we generally use when we need to know how to get where we are going. We start the engine, plug in our destination and set off, obediently following the instructions. We can make it the fastest route, or the shortest. I don’t have the luxury of a GPS in my slightly older vehicle, so I usually have a quick squiz at an online map before I set out. Sometimes, I will even print myself a copy – belt and braces. Gone are the days of ‘you should have turned left back there!’ It is all so easy. And a tad dull.

This story isn’t just a nostalgia trip. It has always bothered me that a GPS stifles our inner weekend-explorer – its electronic efficiency has limitations. The highly targeted map lit up on the car dash – and the monotonous tones of ‘ the voice’ cutting in to tell us to go left at the second exit of the roundabout – shows just where we are going and not a great deal more. Sure, with a digital map you can zoom out and get an overview, but the scale is tiny, and at arms’ length. You can’t open it up wide across your lap, peer at it closely and point to somewhere over the fold. It is impossible to see to the extent of the horizon, to see the big picture of possibilities. It’s not conducive to giving an unknown windy road a try, just because you think there may be the perfect spot to stop for a cuppa just over the hill, or the perfect creek into which you can dangle your hot feet.

Maps went with glove boxes. Glove boxes of cars – in themselves named after an anachronism – used to be stuffed with them. Glove boxes hark back to a more romantic time altogether, when a driver’s gloves were neatly stowed away in them, when the opening of the receptacle would trigger a light so you could see the contents. (These days there is no light, unless you are at the luxury end of the market, gone in the endless pursuit of cost-saving efficiencies.) After all, who wears driving gloves ‘these days’? I recall my father having an old pair of soft, white, leather ones – formerly his flying gloves, I think – that he would sometimes wear. But that would have to be getting on for fifty years ago, and I was never really sure why he felt they were necessary.

So the glove box has gone the way of my filing cabinet, as a repository of extraneous stuff. But I digress.

We set out with no fixed plans. Just a map and a whim. We spend our day winding through the foothills of the Scenic Rim, discovering quaint places, beautiful scenery, well away from the rat run of the Cunningham Highway – via which everyone is obediently, and hurriedly, following their GPS to get to their destination. Instead, we saunter; we discover space to breathe. We linger on the brow of the next hill to savour the quiet of the breeze rustling through the roadside verge and to drink in the panoramic majesty of the scenery. We cut down a dirt road, just because it looks full of undiscovered promise.

We have a wonderful day of pleasant diversion, of roads less travelled, curling our way back and forth through the foothills of the Scenic Rim. Pausing a while. Adjusting our eyes to the big horizons. Enjoying each other’s company.

We rediscover the romance of the day trip. And we rediscover the romance in ourselves.