I Survived Navigating Los Angeles Using Only This Ancient Technology

By Melanie Ehrenkranz on at

When I was a teenager, before phones and cars directed you to your destination, I would sharpie directions on the tops of my hands so I could read them as I drove. It was an effective (if problematic) way to get from point A to point B without looking down at printed MapQuest directions, but it left no room for error. A friend of mine told me that, before she had a mobile navigation device, if she accidentally diverted from the directions she wrote down ahead of time, she would pull over and call her parents, describe her surroundings, and have them direct her back on course.

Besides my Sharpie-smudged steering wheel, my 2006 Toyota Corolla had piles of papers with various destinations on them littered on the floor in the backseat. Of course, there were personal navigation devices in the early 2000s, like the TomTom, which launched in 2004. I took one on a road trip from San Diego to Canada, but after a few misguided routing choices (TomTom was insistent on me and my friend making a left into a gorge), we resorted to state maps. That was a decade ago, just shy of the release of mobile Google Maps.

I haven’t really thought about tangible maps in ages. While I’ve been handed them at museums, amusement parks, or while travelling abroad, I haven’t depended on one for my day-to-day guidance in years. Our smartphones have highly effective navigation apps baked in, and there are countless other options you can download for free.

But this week is IRL Week at Gizmodo, and I foolishly suggested that I try to find my way somewhere new without technology. So on Thursday, I had my sister drop of me off at a AAA to pick up a map of the area. I unfolded the county map—which was about half the size of my body—and laid it out on the trunk of her car. My sister held down the top corners so it would stop flapping in the wind as I looked for our current cross streets, where I marked an X. It took us a few more minutes to find the cross streets of my destination, a coffee shop a few miles away, and I marked an X there. I then drew dark lines along major streets from point A to point B and set off.

I stared up at the cross streets for a minute, trying to orient my map so it was facing in the direction I wanted to go. The unmoving pen marks were my only guide now, and I really missed that blue arrow assuring me I was, in fact, walking in the right direction. My sister zoomed by, honking mockingly at me as she sped off into the distance. Now it was just me, the open road, my sense of direction a friend once described as “borderline unendurable,” and my map.

Steps felt longer on map time. Without the countdown of feet and minutes, stretches were immeasurable. Like, shit — imagine living your life according to an hourglass or a sundial. If you have nowhere to be, and nothing to do, and life’s purpose is simply to not die and relish in your existence, wonderful. But we live at a time where every second feels like three years, largely thanks to the nightmarish flood of information hurled at us online at all times. What I’m saying is, I missed my “estimated time to destination.”

But then something beautiful happened — boredom. The gateway to contentment. It was a monotonous activity, pausing every few streets to orient myself and take in my surroundings. A little overpass bridge. Hidden side streets. A cute ice cream shop. My slow creep to the big blue body of water on the map.

What was most unsettling about the journey was that I had no idea exactly how far I was walking or how long it would take to get to that elusive there. I could see, visually, that some stretches were longer than others, but eyeballing the route gave me no sense of how many minutes each segment would take, as a navigation app might. I missed that. I also missed that little blue dot reassuring me that I was going in the right direction. My map also did not include public transportation routes and times. If I was a) late to work; b) too far to comfortably walk; and/or c) in hellish weather, that would’ve been a nightmare. What’s more, it doesn’t note how pedestrian-friendly the streets are on the map, which led to me hugging the curb in a few bike lanes, banking on the sympathy of the cyclists when they saw me carrying a big ass map.

My first and only diversion from my scribbled route happened after I was spit out from the bike lane. A few extra turns meant I could walk along the water rather than the main drag. But since I couldn’t just aimlessly walk west and count on my phone to reroute me, I had to stop at the corner and doodle in my new journey. It was a windy day. Have you ever witnessed a girl wrangle a flapping map half the size of her body on the corner of a busy intersection? I haven’t, because it was me, but a few honks and an “ARE YOU OKAY, LADY?!” from a passerby leads me to believe I looked cool and collected.

Maps — tangible, foldable maps — are a great way to exercise your juicy brain and familiarise yourself with the lay of the land. It forced me to rethink navigating my city. Instead of relying on my phone to ping me when it’s time to turn, I looked up. Like really looked up. I wasn’t thinking about the push notifications I swiped away as I concentrated on my next turn, I was reading street signs and learning a city I thought I already knew. For fun.

There’s a fine line between boredom and contentment, and about 30 street names in, it was like I was momentarily freed from the national state of affairs. No blogging. No Twitter. No news at all. It was almost meditative.

Some two hours and who-knows-how-many miles later, I made it to the coffee shop without a hitch, phone, or getting killed. I like to joke that in a post-apocalyptic society, I would probably be eaten first. Not because I necessarily have the most meat on my bones, but because I serve no other useful purpose to the group. Surprisingly, no one wants to hear about my best blogs when they are subsisting on foraging. But maybe now they’d keep me around as navigator. Though there probably aren’t street signs after the fall of society. Moving on.

Navigating with a paper map was a nice reminder of how far we’ve come in navigation in the last decade or two. Ahead of last week, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone mention MapQuest. I certainly can’t remember the last time I needed to print out directions before leaving the house. And I have a newfound appreciation for maps, not just as a visually cool slice of the past, but as an effective piece of ancient technology.

That being said, Google Maps, I love you. I appreciate you. You have never led me (very) adrift. With you, I can conquer the world. Until my phone dies. Then I’m just a sweet, misguided fool.