It was 6:30 am on a cold, dark morning when I had an epiphany. I was huddled in a line with complete strangers, contemplating numb toes, the coming sunrise, and my insatiable wanderlust, when I realized the tremendous influence Rand McNally has had on my generation.
When a last minute vacation to Canada’s Maritimes didn’t pan out, we decided to make a quick trip to Washington DC instead. No planning? No problem. Pack, get in the van, and start driving east. By the time we hit the interstate the GPS was on and loaded with a random DC address to head us in the right direction. By the time we made the Pennsylvania border, we had a hotel booked online. Somewhere between Pittsburgh and Gaithersburg a plan began to take shape, and by the time we hit Alexandria we had “the list”. All the sights we needed to cram into 3 educational days for 3 kids and 1 Canadian who had never before been to our nations great capital.
Unfortunately some things do require a little prior planning. Like tickets to get to the top of the Washington Monument. Those alluring little windows waaaay up there just calling to be looked out of. Day one went off without a hitch- 13+ miles of walking, complaining, museum, walking, cajoling, museum, walking, hotdogs, museum, walking… but no tickets for the top of “the” monument. Tickets had to be reserved in advance. So here I was at 6:30am, standing in line to get 5 of the 600 walk-up tickets given out to disorganized (spontaneous) tourists like myself, while the rest of the family peacefully slept in their cozy beds.
Decision time… Should I stand for 3 hours in lonely silence or warm up the chilly morning talking to random strangers? On a whim I decided it would be best to swap stories with the friendlies in front of me. Life stories, travel stories, childhoods, roadtrips… That’s when the revelation happened. Somewhere between dad vs motel clerk, city-to-city mileage charts and the merits of the spiral bound versions we always wanted and couldn’t afford, I realized that most of us in that shivering line had had our childhoods shaped by the same paper book. Our map to adventure. The Atlas.
When vacation time came, mom and dad wouldn’t leave home without it. No GPS to fall back on, just old fashioned paper map navigation. From one side of the country to the other. Little green tents, pine trees, points of interest, national parks… these were the symbols the guided us. Somehow our dads unerringly made their way to battlefields, campgrounds, national parks, monuments, around and through big cities and back home again.
How many of us, I wonder, ended up at the same place because it was on the map? How many of us followed the same historic roads, learned interstate numbers, learned the history of America from roadside plaques, and still measure distance with our fingers, all because of William Rand and Andrew McNally?
So often these days, I don’t even know what road I’m on… I’m just following someones idea of a sultry digital voice. When we stop for a hotel, we don’t ask to check out the room (or many rooms) before renting it. We don’t plan our travels from town to town where we can buy camper tires. We don’t stop at every roadside marker and historic monument. We don’t search for the little tent symbol on the atlas signifying a safe haven for the night. But while we don’t do those things anymore, I AM still convinced we were all waiting in a cold ticket line at the base of the Washington Monument, because once upon a time we were instilled with a craving to search out those points-of-interest symbols… thanks in part to parents who loved seeing America and to Rand McNally.
And so, to my good friends from Texas, who I had never met before, but, who shared several enjoyable hours waiting in line for tickets on a chilly DC morning… it was a pleasure meeting you. Perhaps someday, standing in a ticket line or sitting at a roadside park, we may meet again. In the meantime, dust off that dogeared atlas, pack the cooler and have another adventure.