An Ode to the Rand McNally Road Atlas

Because the map application on your phone cannot give you the big picture

The map application on your phone cannot give you the big picture. (Photo: Antiqua Print Gallery/Alamy)
The map application on your phone cannot give you the big picture.

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When I’m trying to figure out where I am nowadays, I generally use my phone. But when I’m thinking about where I want to be, I use the Rand McNally Road Atlas of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. I’ve seen road maps of other countries, and I will go out on a limb and declare this atlas to be the all-around best in the world. I prefer the big paperback version, which always falls apart and which I replace every few years. All the vehicles I’ve owned had Rand McNally pages trodden into the floor or strewn across the rear seats. 

The map application on your phone cannot give you the big picture. Rand McNally’s atlas is about the breathtaking, wide-screen picture—America the Beautiful, in full, including Alaska and Hawaii, with ancillary, somewhat less detailed maps of Canada and Mexico. I consider this atlas a work of literature, and I pore over it for hours on end. Years ago, when I had just moved to New York City, I often became homesick for the middle of the country, where I grew up. I consoled myself by taking out my atlas and reading the names of small towns in Missouri or lakes in Minnesota or rivers in Michigan. For example, there, on the northern shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: See the tiny blue thread of the Two-Hearted River? Literary glory of the most powerful sort is connected to the name. The map shows a North Branch and a West Branch of that river; I’m not sure which of those was also known as the Big. When Ernest Hemingway sojourned in Michigan, he mostly fished the Black River, but he titled his great short story “Big Two-Hearted River” because that name is poetry.

Romance lives in every page of Rand McNally. From the Upper Peninsula, I cast my eyes down through Michigan to the little town of Maybee. A poem, forsooth! I want to put it in all caps or italics: Maybee, Michigan! And then I go into northwestern Ohio, to Huron County, where my family is from. Then I flip the pages to Wyoming, to the town of Bill, with nothing around it for miles. Bill, Wyoming! Without Rand McNally, how else would I know of this town?

Thank God the atlas is a perennial bestseller and will be published forever. Diligently and annually, it offers the mysterious fascination of American place names. When I go out on an adventure, I’m seeking poetry in the highway’s prose.

From Outside Magazine, December 2017
Filed To: NavigationTechnologyTools
Lead Photo: Antiqua Print Gallery/Alamy

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