with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Art of Navigation – Maps, Tracks and Getting Lost

Animated graphic of giving directions.We have every kind of map you can imagine for our life on the road. Street maps, local maps, fold-out maps, computerized maps (two different programs!), maps in books, maps on backs of flyers and, our personal favorite, hand drawn maps from people we meet along the way with a locale in mind that we CANNOT miss. With all these maps, you would think we’d have mastered the art of navigation. Well, we’re getting better but it’s still a challenge.

The art of navigation entails several finely honed skills. First, an acute ability to read maps of all kinds. Being raised by parents in the real estate and construction business, not only can I read maps, I’m fantastic with blue prints. Driving around with my mother looking at homes for sale, I became the official map reader for her at an early age.

Santa Fe to Los Alamos Highway, New Mexico. Photo by Brent VanFossenSecond, you must have the ability to gauge distance. Maps are strange things. One inch on one map is 1 mile and on another it is 25 miles and on the next it’s 100 miles. Travel outside the US and those miles become kilometers and for those unfamiliar with the metric system, like me, you have no clue how far 1 kilometer or 20 kilometers is. In one huge US atlas, Texas covers two pages, as does Florida, but Alaska is on the same page with Hawaii. As we drive into a town, we move from the state map with the highways to the city maps with the street names, and I often forget on how far it is on which map I’m reading. I will think it’s a good distance when it’s only a mile. Or the mile I was familiar with on one map will become twenty on the next. So I have to stay “distance conscious” all the time.

Third, and probably the most important of the skills, you must have the ability to communicate and translate the map to the driver. You become the talking map. I long for the day when computers in cars will replace me as the speaker for the map, but until then I have to do the talking.

Speaking for the map is not an easy chore. There are rarely landmarks on the map other than the occasional school or public building, so the additional skill involved in speaking for the map is having sharp eyes to actually find the street signs. So not only is the map reader reading the map and speaking the map to the driver, but she has to be watching the road and scanning streets for identifying landmarks and street signs at the same time. This goes beyond head patting and tummy rubbing.

Animated graphic of mapsThe language of the map is not an easy one. Sometimes, as soon as I find the identifying street sign on the map, we are past it. So this involves planning ahead. I’ll say to the driver, usually my patient husband, “We’ve just passed Smith Street. The next one is Anderson. Then Harold. After that is Jackson. Turn right there.” This tells the driver to move over into the right lane to turn, and he has three blocks to do it in. Or at least that is what you think he understood you to say. You have to think ahead all the time, translating into driver language as you go.

No map can help the lack of a good highway access sign. On the map, the highway passes right over the road we are on. The information we are lacking is whether or not the on-ramp to the north is accessed from the right or left side of the road. Or is it before or after the overpass? It always happens that we decide which one we want to chance, and it’s the opposite way, across three lanes of traffic.

VanFossen Trailer on the Arkansa Talamena Drive, photo by Lorelle VanFossen
Pulling a 30 foot fifth wheel behind a crew cab/long bed pickup is not anyone’s idea of a good time when it comes to shifting across three lanes of busy traffic, especially at short notice. We’ve decided that this is some kind of joke perpetrated by road construction crews to get revenge for the long hours, lousy work conditions, and low pay. They are sitting there, somewhere, watching, laughing at us all the time. “Caught another sucker, Fred!”

One of our favorite books for life on the road is “The Exit Book”. Available at major truck stops and camping stores, this book lists the major businesses, gas stations, repair facilities, and food sources at all exits along Interstate highways. This is a lifesaver for the highway traveler. It tells you which side of the highway things are on, and really helps you plan your strategy. Unfortunately, leave the Interstates and you are out of luck.

graphic of highway interchangeHighway access signs, those that should direct you from the center of town to the highway, or from the highway to the center of town or another highway, are sorely lacking in most communities. Even in major cities, we can be paralleling a major highway for twenty blocks, see it through the buildings, but never see a sign pointing towards the access ramp. We drove around in circles through Charleston, SC, in the old part of town trying to find access to the highway passing right over our heads. Why they do this is just another nightmare for the navigator to lose sleep over.

Tips and Tricks
for the Navigator
(or The Speaker for the Map)

To help those of you who have either volunteered or been forced into the role as speaker of the map for your family, here are a few tricks and tips I’ve learned along the highways, byways, and U-turns of North America.

Check the symbols and the distance scale on every map
Not only will this information give you the visual “measurement” of the map, but you will have a quick refresher course on the symbols this particular map maker uses to identify landmarks. On most maps, the symbol for camping is a tent. On a map we have in Israel, the tent is the symbol for a picnic area and a picnic table is the symbol for a camping spot. Confusing! We arrived at what we thought was a camping spot to find only picnic tables and no camping signs. It was another hour to the closest real camping spot. Familiarize yourself with each map’s symbols so you don’t make the same mistake.
Chart your course in advance
Graphic of deciding which way to go.Sit down outside of the vehicle with the driver and talk out your course. Do this when time and tempers are relaxed. Go through the map and point out landmarks. Discuss the route thoroughly, highlighting the landmarks, so that you both understand in advance what is going to happen. No surprises means no temper flares or arguments during the voyage.
Look for alternative routes “just in case”
Being unfamiliar with the territory you are exploring means you might not know where the congestion points are. The map won’t tell you about construction or detours. In some cities you can guess when rush hour is, but not always. It’s dependent upon the major industry and their particular schedule. Always plan on running into interference, so prepare yourself by having a backup route figured out. You might never use it, but it helps when you are reading street signs, reading the map, speaking for the map to the driver, AND you are suddenly called upon to reroute your course.
Announce landmarks in advance
When you give the driver the landmarks in advance, you help chart the course with ease. For instance, “Turn right at the next light after the gas station, and move into the left lane. You’ll be making a left at the first street after the turn.” Or you can list the upcoming streets as landmarks: “The next street is Smith, and the one after that is Alexander, and the next one is Johnson and that’s the street we want. We’ll be turning right on Johnson so be in the turn lane by Alexander.” This gives the driver time to anticipate and plan ahead and know when the turn is coming.
Breathe, relax, take it easy
As the official speaker for the map, the job is incredibly stressful. Sometimes you need a vacation to recover from 3 hours of map speaking. Take time during the straight path intervals to breathe deeply and relax. Don’t stress out. Everyone makes mistakes, even drivers! Lift your eyes up from the map and look at the pretty sky, a bird in the air, the nice flowers and trees whizzing by, and give your brain and head a rest once in a while. Remember, this trip was supposed to be a good thing for everyone.
Look ahead
Keep your course charted a mile or more ahead of your current position. By helping the driver plan ahead, particularly in the city where turns come quickly, you will have a much happier driver. This will not only let you proceed with your map speaking in a more relaxed fashion, it will help you anticipate your course changes.
When in doubt, stop
Look for viewpoints and rest stops to pull off and reevaluate your course.Don’t be afraid to ask the driver to stop so you all can confer with the map. Plan ahead for a pull off or to turn into a gas station or school, a place which is safe to stop and you have plenty of room to get back out with ease. Stop and take your time to look at the map together and make sure you know where you are going.

EXTRA: Story from the Telling Zone about Asking for Directions


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