When Being Globally Positioned Doesn't Hit The Spot

May 15, 2017

For many drivers, GPS is the greatest thing since unleaded gas, anti-lock brakes and cup holders. But for commentator Martha Ackmann, not so much.

A while back, I had to drive to the South Shore -- to an area I'm not entirely familiar with. I got out my phone, plugged in the destination and immediately felt lost.

Not lost in terms of direction, but empty -- as if something I loved was missing.

My father was a cartographer. He drew maps for a living. When I was growing up in St Louis, he worked a lot of overtime at home, hunched over a light-table rigged up in our basement. I watched as he positioned a small stylus over a coated negative. Then he’d carefully trace lines only he could see.

To me, it seemed like magic as he sliced through films, roads and intersections, and whole towns would emerge.

Florenze Ackmann (1925-2013), a cartographer and father of our commentator, Martha Ackmann.
Credit Courtesy / Martha Ackmann

Sometimes my father would bring home finished maps. What had once been tracings were now fully formed charts. Highways had become red lines, smaller roads black. Forests and mountains were green and rivers blue.

When our family went on vacations, my brothers and I took turns reading maps in the back seat of the car. I was fascinated by the names of towns, making myself carsick studying the small print and reading off funny names: Tightwad, Knob Noster, Dutzow.

I liked dreaming of faraway places that didn't seem so out-of-reach when I measured them on the map with my hand. Denver was only eight knuckles away, and the ocean as close as my outstretched palm.

My recent trip navigating Boston interstates down to Weymouth was easy: each turn announced by a disembodied voice and arrival time calculated precisely to the minute. GPS provided a line between two points, but I missed the visual meandering, staring at a map and discovering I was close to cranberry bogs, Abigail Adams' birthplace or the Atlantic barely a knuckle away.

Sometimes when I can't sleep, I find myself tracing in my head the lines of old maps. Washington Street intersects with Florissant Road. The Mississippi River merges with the Missouri at West Alton.

The mental rambling is a comfort and soon I begin to flicker out, like my father's old light table. But before I do, there is always the same final image: blue and red lines crisscrossing and intersecting, a matrix of connections that look like veins.

Martha Ackmann is a journalist and author who lives in Leverett, Massachusetts, and teaches at Mount Holyoke College.