Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The serendipity of maps

The Badlands
     Yesterday's column on the Rand McNally Road Atlas got a surprising amount of reader response. People really love maps, and I suppose also crave a break from the news of the day. Google Maps is a very useful tool. But it does fail at the whimsey, the serendipity, that physical maps excel at, in their ability to serve up unexpected destinations. 
     Or near serendipity, as in the case of the snippet below, from my unpublished travel memoir, "Quest for Pie." It is 2009; the boys are I are leaving Badlands National Park, pressing westward.

     Edie had suggested that I buy a Garmin — an electronic pad about two by three inches, a $200 piece of equipment that perches on the dashboard and gives directions using satellites. And God knows I sometimes need directions. We had stood in the big Best Buy electronics store while I turned the thing over dubiously in my hands. But it would be a new technological device to master, and I worried I’d drive off a cliff while consulting it. My gut told me: save the two hundred bucks.
     So I used maps—the paper kind that fold. A few weeks before we left, I picked up a stack at the American Automobile Association office at a strip mall in Northbrook, provided by a perky, helpful AAA gal who grew so enthusiastic about our trip as we talked about it, I fancied, for a moment, she wanted to come with us.
     The morning we left the Badlands, before the boys woke up in our cabin, I consulted the South Dakota map, figuring out our route. We had an easy, two-hour drive to Custer, where we’d see Mount Rushmore and, the next morning, tour Jewel Cave National Monument—another Edie call. She learned from guidebooks that they had a lantern-lit tour of the cave. Normally, I’d resist a cave, as a dark, damp place not worth the effort of descending into. Really, if you’ve seen one cave—and we had, a cave in Put-in-Bay, Ohio—you’ve seen them all. They’re dark. They’re subterranean. They’re caves.
     But lanterns? Flickering flame? That made it an adventure. Tom Sawyer, exploring a cave with a candle, courting death with Becky Thatcher. The route I worked out at home had us swing north along 90 through Rapid City, or…
     Badlands National Park is in the southwest corner of South Dakota, a thumb of green sitting atop a field of pink—the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Long ago the Sioux Nation. And there on the map, right by the border with Nebraska, I noticed the “Wounded Knee Massacre National Historic Site.”
     All I knew about Wounded Knee was a) a book was written about it with the evocative title, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and b) that’s it. I’d heard of the book, but not read it.
     Nevertheless the name resonated, vibrating with historical significance. Two inches below where we were now. I checked the map’s key. About 40 miles away. When I asked the clerk in the lodge—a round-faced, black-haired Native-American woman—what the drive to Wounded Knee is like, her eyes widened a tiny bit, as if impressed, and I felt perhaps a notch above the standard braying white bread tourist. I liked that, liked the idea of going there without having planned to go beforehand. Of the boys and I standing solemnly before whatever plaque or megalith or memorial is at Wounded Knee. The impulse surprised me—uncharacteristic—but I immediately realized where it came from.
     As you head into the West, the inventory of roadside gift shops attached to gas stations suddenly shifts toward rubber tomahawks and feathered dream catchers and plastic statuettes of Indian chiefs. I had never been particularly sympathetic to the Native-American plight—indigenous people always get the shaft by better-armed newcomers, it’s the same story the world over, no need to feel guilt-ridden that it was also true in the United States. Making a show of feeling bad, scraping together a little ball of faux remorse and rolling it around between your fingers doesn’t change the hard facts of the past. No suffering is alleviated. It’s just an unconsciously insincere, easy way of letting yourself off the hook for something that isn’t your fault to begin with.
     But this transformation of their vanished culture into souvenir garbage struck me as slightly obscene, romanticizing the people who had been ruthlessly slaughtered and displaced while yet again making a buck off them. A distinctly American phenomenon. I have never been to Poland, but I’ll bet there aren’t tubs of plastic rabbis and bad paintings of Jewish women lighting Sabbath candles in all the gas stations heading to Auschwitz. Visiting Wounded Knee struck me as an atonement, a kind of penance, a humble gesture to inject some good karma into our journey at its beginning. Plus it would be educational. I ran the plan by the boys—drop down 44 to 2, pass through Potato Creek and Porcupine, visit the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. We could even dip into Nebraska, to notch another state on our belts. It might add an hour to the drive. They were all for it.
     In the van, map spread out across the steering wheel, reviewing the route, I congratulated myself: the Garmin device would never have pointed me toward Wounded Knee. The Honda was loaded up, running, outside the cabin at Cedar Pass Lodge. We were checked out. The coffee was in the coffee holder, the boys in the back. Wallet, sunglasses, wedding ring. Everything set.
     Although … one qualm. As I put the car in gear, I thought I had better mention it to them, just in case. If we loop south to Wounded Knee, we’ll then proceed northwest to Custer, via a different route. That means we’ll miss Wall Drug.
     “Could we do both?” Ross asked. No, not really. If we did, we’d be backtracking and it would add 100 miles to the trip. The boys were adamantly in favor of Wall Drug. Mom had talked about it. We had to see Wall Drug.
     “Wall Drug is a must, right Ross?” said Kent, rallying support. Right.
     Edie had indeed been rhapsodizing the place as a highlight of her youth. They give free ice water. I considered overriding the boys, but then I’d be hijacking the itinerary and forcing us off onto a grim tangent. What if Wounded Knee turned out to be a bust; a windy, dreary nothing? It would be my fault.
     Okay, okay, I thought, No Wounded Knee. Wall Drug it is.
     “Goodbye Badlands,” Kent called, sweetly as we headed toward the park exit. “Hope to see you.…”
     “Eventually?” I said.


  1. I found Wall Drug highly overrated. It's basically a tourist trap with a drug store & drinking fountain attached to it!

  2. And what did the boys say after their visit to Wall Drug, the best-advertised letdown ever?

  3. There may not be a plethora of plastic rabbis on sale during a trip to Auschwitz, but you didn't grow up cheering for the Nazis while watching old war movies as my Indian friends grew up cheering for the cowboys fighting their ancestors on TV. If Blacks have it bad in the Land of Liberty, and they do, Indians have it even worse, plus in these days of so-called Indian casinos, nobody even feels sorry for them.


  4. Hope you made it back.
    As a wanderer who went off road with his son a long time ago, I still have wonderful memories of everything but Wall Drug.
    And I don't like ice in my water.

  5. We've always loved the Rand McNally Road Atlas; I ordered the 2021 yesterday.
    I can attest to the fact that one can spend so much time looking at the fascinating off-road places on the map as to get side-tracked from finding the more direct route to one's particular destination.

  6. Well, I'll speak up for Wall Drug, since everybody seems to be ripping it. I expected a tourist trap and it *is* a tourist trap. So what? I enjoyed imagining how it must have started out, as this little oasis on a long, dry, relatively bleak stretch of highway. The way it's ballooned is a classic bit of Americana, which I thought was pretty fun, not that I normally enjoy unbridled commercialism. And I appreciated the free water, on the hot day I enjoyed it, and the 5¢ coffee, too, though I'm sure the java connoisseurs found it insipid. (Uh, this was quite a while ago!)

    1. Well said Jakash.
      One man's tourist trap is another man's mecca :)

  7. Not the point of your article (which as normal is great) but I have to say I got one of the big 8in screen Garmins. I had the little one and it was hard to see. Was really a distraction. You would think this bigger model would be a bigger distraction. Nope, it's so large I can glance at in really quick and keep my eyes on the road. Plus it's voice operated. I can say "Garmin, take me to Willis Tower" and it calculates and whalla! That little one took forever to type on the tiny keyboard where I wanted to go. Plus it has "Alexa" in it. Can say "Alexa play my kind of Town" Also, it connects with my rear camera so when I back up it comes on. No, I don't have stock in Garmin, I just love it. (When you get old it takes a little more to excite you, like when I get a new kitchen scrubbing brush :) )

  8. Did you see the world's largest prairie dog? It weighs more than a car.

  9. Ah yes, "this transformation of their vanished culture into souvenir garbage struck me as slightly obscene, romanticizing the people who had been ruthlessly slaughtered and displaced while yet again making a buck off them."Before the pandemic hit, I had spent much of the winter engaged in a effort to remove "Redman" as the name of my high school team. The other side, citing "heritage" much as the Confederate flag wavers do, insists that really we're just honoring them.

  10. I collected road maps as a kid. Used to go down to the Standard gas station a few blocks from my house and get the newest ones. And when my parents took me and my sister to D.C. and NYC and Niagara Falls, I made sure to acquire a map from each state.

    During college, and afterward ,I hitched all over the U.S. and through eastern Canada and took a lot of road trips. Always had a map of wherever I was, or was headed to. I've been in 43 states, and have lived in six of them.

    Still have a bunch of old road maps from the Seventies. The oil companies...especially Gulf... were still issuing beautiful ones back then, with gorgeous colors, artwork, and graphics. Some of them resemble those old souvenir tablecloths, from Florida and other exotic places. They might be worth a buck or two. People will collect almost anything. Even road maps.

    I'll take a road map or a road atlas over a phone anytime. Old habits die hard in old geezers like me.


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