I never thought much about maps until I turned 11 and began an orienteering class. It was supposed to be fun and the perfect excuse to get lost in the woods. But for a reason I cannot remember today, the woods were out-of-bounds that year. Instead my classmates and I found ourselves confined to the vineyards. Every time we were taken out, my heart sank at the sight of endless rows of vines in front of me, while at my back the forest lay still. I was a good student, so I listened to the instructions and tried to learn. But soon, it became clear that I could not sustain any interest for the class. Finding stamps in the vineyards didn’t require any map reading skills, just a good pair of eyes. I could raise my head, look around and spot my classmates that had been sent before me on the trail. I then could simply follow their lead. The lines, colours, and signs of maps remained a secret language.
The year I turned 11 was also the year my parent got divorced. From that moment forward, I grew to fear maps. During my first decade, my mom and dad would do all the driving and map reading whenever we went on holidays. I was able to relax in the backseat, read, sleep, and fight with my sister. The roads were none of my concern. But my dad went away and I gained access to the front seat, and was promoted to the role of navigator. My mom would thrust a French road atlas into my hands and tell me to look up our destination. It was easy to find it in the index but when I turned to page 84 and tried to locate a hamlet in the giant D3 square, I was lost. Lines twisted awkwardly, spots dotting them at intervals and names sprawling all over. I would cry with glee whenever I located our destination as if I had cracked a code. The joy would always be short-lived as my mom would then ask me to find how to get there from our current position. How was I supposed to know where we were? How could I know if we were heading north, south, east or west? And for that matter where was north on the map? Anxiety would well up in me and more often that not, my mom ended up pulling by the side of the road, snatching the atlas from my hands and doing the navigating on her own. I would lower my head and wish for time to move quicker so I could exit the metal box on wheels and be inside our tent already.
Years went pass and my terrible skills at navigation became an ongoing joke in my family. I had after all spent a year learning about maps and natural navigation and yet I was the worst person to ask for navigational help. I didn’t try learn again. My mother would always get frustrated with me and who else could I ask? I never went on trips with my father. So I remained ignorant, joking along with my family and yet dreading the road atlas at the back of my seat.
Ten years later, I arrived in London and escaped the clutches of the French road atlas only to be faced with a London A to Z. I packed it grudgingly on my week-ends off to explore the city, but I would rarely open it. I was going out to get lost. I did not need this atlas. Instead, I learned the tube map by heart. If I truly became lost, it was just a matter of making my way back to the central line. So I walked and learned the ins and outs of Central London, connecting places in my head as I linked them on foot. Without realising it I was creating my own map of the city. It was full of gaping holes but it didn’t matter. I could find my way around the city without my A to Z.
A couple of years ago, I discovered cycle touring and reluctantly opened maps again. I steered clear of the Ordnance Survey Maps (a.k.a OS Maps). They were too maps, too scary. Instead I bought a pocket road atlas and poured over it as I planned my first cycle trip in Dorset and Devon. I was elated when after two days on the road I realised I was doing well. I was even starting to make sense of all the legends dotting the paper! I did eventually got lost in a labyrinth of narrow lanes, but I wasn’t put off by it. It only strengthened my resolve to learn how to use maps again. So upon my return, I opened the Ordnance Survey website, and learned a few basics. I borrowed one of their maps from the library and put my newly acquired skills to the test and did alright.
A year ago, I discovered microadventures and with it the joy of OS Maps on Bing*. I learned to visualise the landscape from the many lines crisscrossing my computer screen, turning the dots and signs into buildings and landmarks. Slowly I became better at finding good bivvy spots and in April of this year, I managed to hike the Vanguard Way using Ordnance Survey maps and did not get lost very often.
After this successful journey, I purchased several cycling maps from Sustrans, got a few withdrawn OS Maps from the library and just a few weeks ago, I found myself spreading them across my living room to plan a week-end away. After all, why do I need the Internet when a map can tell me all I need to know about my destination?
Learn to read maps with Ordnance Survey handy guide.
*The new Bing Maps does not offer an OS Maps version. So the joy might soon be lost.