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The rediscovered charm of the low-tech Thomas Guide

November 20, 2005|Lisa J. Manterfield | Lisa J. Manterfield is a freelance writer based in Hermosa Beach.

I'm a spontaneous planner. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I'm a recovering engineer, a born-again creative type, a logical thinker with a taste for adventure. It means I always have a plan--often tabulated, always color-coded and sometimes even with a graph--but it's likely to be tossed aside at any given moment for an impromptu escapade. With a new tangent decided on, a Plan B will be quickly formulated, a new chart drafted and I'll be on my merry way. And I'll always carry a map.

For me, maps are the perfect combination of form and function. There's a cartographic beauty to the meandering colored lines and shading, the patches of urban orange that fade to white squares of farmland and on into the green and blue of the countryside. After tramping over miles of peat and heather in my native northern England and coming across a pile of rocks intended to mark my way, I find a certain mysterious satisfaction in finding it clearly marked as "Cairn" on my map and knowing exactly where on the earth I stand.

My father taught me to read a map during the long weekend rambles and summer hiking trips of my childhood. He introduced me to the Ordnance Survey and its comprehensive mapping of the British Isles. At a scale of 1:25000, one mile on the ground was covered by about 2.5 inches on the map so that every road, path and sheep trail, every hamlet, schoolhouse and ramshackle barn was represented by lines and shapes on the paper. Even the pubs were denoted by blue half-full beer mugs--essential information for the rare hot day. A patch of green meant a woodland walk with bluebells and cooing wood pigeons; a tightly bunched pack of wavy brown contour lines warned of a tough climb with a breathtaking view; a blue area meant water, angular for a reservoir, irregular for a lake; and all three together were a sure bet for a spectacular day of hiking.

In 1990, a one-year engineering internship brought me to Los Angeles. Actually, it was Orange County, but to a 20-year-old from a small island it was all the same to me--gray concrete, honking cars and vast freeways spanning lane after speeding lane. The map showed very little green, brown or blue, wiggly or otherwise, but I loved it all the same.

In that first year many benevolent strangers took me under their wings, some intrigued by my wide-eyed innocence and lack of street smarts, others because they were kind. They taught me to speak American English to save me from public humiliation, reminded me which side of the street to drive on, explained several times how those impossibly hazardous two-way left-turn lane things work and showed me how to navigate around this vast metropolis.

"Get yourself a Thomas Guide," they advised.

"A what?"

"It's a map book."

"Lovely."

Off I trotted to find this oracle of urban travel, but at four times my hourly pay rate it hardly seemed worth it. Another generous colleague stepped in and gave me his outdated edition: a pale blue '85. It served me well for the next several years, but when an entire new freeway arrived in the form of the 105, I knew it was time to upgrade. Together, my sleek '95 and I explored the farthest edges of the giant fold-out map: adobe structures in Agoura Hills, seminars in Pomona, a hot date in Palmdale and a 40th birthday party in San Clemente.

Then the age of the Internet arrived and MapQuest and Yahoo Maps became my new travel aids. They offered turn-by-turn directions, a choice of shortest or fastest routes and routes avoiding highways or elementary schools. These electronic co-pilots were quick and simple to use, and if my directions got battered or I spilled my Earl Grey on them, I simply printed another. So when my old Thomas Guide got lost in a move, I didn't bother to replace it.

Then one day last June, I went to Irvine. I tapped into MapQuest and printed my directions: 405 south, go 37.4 miles, exit. I didn't really need such simple directions, but I took them just in case.

As I'd traveled so far from my South Bay home, I thought I might as well make an afternoon of it, so I took a side trip. However, my usually keen sense of direction went awry. There were identical grand Mediterranean-style houses whichever way I turned. The parks, unfenced, with their carved wood name signs and baseball diamonds, apparently had been manufactured by the same company and shipped, already assembled, to each neighborhood. Every corner looked the same to me, and my beloved Pacific Ocean, trustily used for westward orientation, was nowhere to be seen.

I was lost.

I plucked the tea-stained directions from the floor of my car and squinted at the postage stamp-sized "End" map, but the names of the streets matched nothing I could see on the paper.

I was really lost.

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