Another episode in the continuing saga, “Janet is a tremendous Luddite.”
Back when I was “between Ph.D.s” one of the things I did so I could pay rent was work as an SAT-prep tutor. The company I worked for didn’t do classroom presentations to a group of students, but rather sent us out on “house calls” to the students’ homes for the tutoring. This meant I had clients in many different towns in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, from San Carlos to Fremont to Los Gatos. And I had to figure out, from an address, how to get to each of them.
Of course, this was back in 1994, well before Google Maps (or Yahoo Maps or MapQuest). This meant that I had to invest in a Thomas Brothers Guide, a spiral bound book of road maps for all the towns in each of the counties in the Bay Area. When I got the address of a new client, I’d find it on the map for that town, then work out the best way to get there from my house using the available freeways or surface streets. Given how many clients I was juggling in any given week, I’d also figure out how to get to client A’s house from client B’s house. And, because unexpected slowdowns tend to stress me out when I’m scheduled to arrive at an address at a particular time, I’d usually work out at least one alternate route to my destination before I even got in the car.
I learned a lot during the nine months during which I was an itinerant tutor. For one thing, being paid $15/hour for your face-time with your students isn’t such a great deal when you spend as many hours (or more) overall driving to get to them.
But, on the plus side, my mental maps of the towns where I had clients, and of the connections between these towns, got to be really good. I actually developed a pretty solid intuitive sense of how to get to locations I hadn’t visited before because I knew where most of the major roads were and how they connected and intersected with each other. I had a long stretch of time during which I could get pretty much anywhere and never got badly lost.
Now, when I’m going someplace new (or someplace I haven’t been in a long time), I generally plug in the termini and let Google Maps set my route. But while this has been a fine strategy for getting me from point A to point B, it has left me feeling increasingly ignorant of the street geography of the areas around points A and B. In my mental mapping of these regions, often all I have is the roads which Google has selected for my trip. The surrounding roads and regions are big blank spaces to me. They could have dragons in them for all I know.
And I’ve decided that I don’t care for that. I’m not satisfied that Google knows its way around the towns I visit. I would like to feel like I understand them, like I have more of a geographical “context” for understanding the places I visit. Bay Area or not, I would like to feel like more of an informed denizen than Google is.
So I’m going to dig under the front seat and see if I can find my Thomas Brothers Guide. I may continue to ask Google for advice, but I will no longer let Google define my driving horizons.
(At Crooked Timber, Eszter points out that Google Maps can now be coaxed into providing alternate routes, but I’m still wanting the big picture I remember having from poring over a bunch of different maps myself.)