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Where in the world are we?

Technology can get us there, but maps show us where we're going

I am driving to Yarmouth, Maine, with my dad, whose affection for road maps and the memories they invoke has suddenly been eclipsed by the portable electronic gizmo we have borrowed and affixed to the inside of the windshield.

About the size of a brick, the $1,200 device is using GPS, or Global Positioning Satellites, to give us a three-dimensional illustration of the road as we zoom northward in the early morning a few weeks ago. We obey the directions of a feminine voice inside the box that we have taken to calling Gertrude.

Gert is big on precision. She continually locates us within a few car lengths of our actual position and warns us of upcoming turns in mellifluous, unperturbed tones that wouldn't change were she sending us off a cliff. Rivers, roads, and ocean inlets -- all conveniently labeled -- creep over the screen's horizon like features in a video game.

''I have got to get one of these," Dad coos as we pass the Wells exit on the Maine Turnpike. He is 81, a retired business executive who met with some success. He's already got a lot of stuff. He has to be truly impressed to want more.

The trouble doesn't start until Gert, charged with guiding us to Yarmouth, directs us off the Maine Turnpike and onto Route 295 east, through downtown Portland. It may be shorter, but not during rush hour. Bad Gert.

I stay the course but apprehension builds because only Gert knows our final turns. I hate asking directions. And now Gert's getting assertive.

''Take the next right," Gert instructs.

''No way!" I bark at the box while I rummage though a door compartment scrambling for a map. Gert raises the stakes.

''Take any turn," she instructs.

I finally locate an old map of Maine. The dog has chewed off one corner.

''Make a legal U-turn," Gert starts chirping, ever pleasant.

Dad opens the map. The dog-ingested portion unfolds into a coaster-sized black hole through which most of Greater Portland and Yarmouth have fallen. We are literally upthe 'Pike without a map -- and precisely the victims of the cybernetic technology I had come to write about.

We were headed to the DeLorme Company, a Yarmouth-based publisher of maps and computer mapping products. Concerned that children are literally losing touch with maps, in part because of electronic gizmos such as the unit stuck to my windshield, the company offers workshops in map-reading skills.

Me: ''This is too funny."

Dad: ''I guess I won't get one of these things after all."

Gert: ''Make a legal U-turn."

. . .

Ask teenagers today for directions and they are likely to give you a shopping list of turns and distances culled from MapQuest. Ask them where north is and they are likely to give you a blank stare. Piecemeal precision (some might call it tunnel vision) has supplanted a grasp of the big picture.

Travelers increasingly are missing the picnics in life because they cannot see the beautiful lakes on the maps they never consulted. MapQuest and all its cousins deliver the shortest routes, but not the prettiest ones. Computers have taken a slice of serendipity out of voyaging the way SpellCheck has taken the whimsy out of looking up a word and discovering another in the process.

''The traditional map is becoming an artifact, be it printed in 1655 or 1995," said David Cobb, curator of the 400,000 maps in Harvard University's collection. ''What's lost is the ability these records have to transport you in a way that bland digital images simply cannot do."

As I write, my son, 20, is driving to Cincinnati, where he is coaching a high school crew vying for a national rowing title.

''Where's Cincinnati?" he had said earlier in the day.

Later that afternoon, I find some hand-scrawled directions on a small piece of paper near the coffeemaker. The trip from Boston to the regatta at East Fork State Park in Cincinnati --882.64 miles -- has been reduced to eight turns. The Web had obviously answered all his needs. He will miss Niagara Falls and the legendary roller coasters of Sandusky, Ohio, but I'm more concerned that he has left the directions on the kitchen counter.

A few decades ago, the bygone Esso gas stations gave maps away as a promotional gimmick. But the allure of orienteering, of locating oneself in the greater landscape, has changed. This summer, Coca-Cola has created a promotion using 100 randomly distributed Coke cans, each equipped with a cellphone and GPS. Winners don't have to do anything except stay put. The company finds you.

Indeed, the traditional map appears to be going the way of the dash-mounted compass, leading one to ponder if generations from now, people will wonder where a phrase such as ''getting one's bearings" came from. Shakespeare uses compasses in 22 plays. ''Excuse me, teacher, a what?"

Five years ago, the United States Geological Survey, the federal agency responsible for mapping the nation, sold 4 million printed maps. Last year, the USGS sold just 921,000 maps, and this year, the agency's print shop has gone to standby mode. The new USGS product is The National Map (nationalmap@usgs.gov), an electronic genie that ultimately will provide some 800 layers of data. The product is encyclopedic -- and you don't have to figure out how to fold it back up.

Still, something has been lost, according to Robert Ridky, the USGS education director.

''That wonderful feeling is gone that comes with a library full of collectibles, maps you can hold, handle, maps capturing a wonderful moment in time," Ridky said. Future map collections appear destined for the computer chip, which worries him.

''Think what might have happened had John and Abigail Adams corresponded by e-mail." Ridky said. ''Would anything have been saved? Would something have been lost had a pen nib not touched paper?"

Nearly a half-century ago, Americans were urged to ''see the USA in a Chevrolet"; John Steinbeck motored across country with a notebook and a poodle to write ''Travels With Charley"; the interstate highway network was far from complete; and back roads still connected the dots. You had to have a map.

''Map reading was always a part of my childhood," said Allen Carroll, chief cartographer for the National Geographic Society. ''It was about the only way in a family full of brothers and sisters that I could get attention on family trips. It was my route to the front seat."

Then something changed. Geography started disappearing from school curriculums. The all-inclusive vacation became popular as we started letting others plan for us.

''The American culture became ethnocentric," said Cobb. ''We began looking in, not out."

One big cruise line today makes regular stops at a beach resort leased from Haiti. But naming one of the world's poorest nations a luxury stopover is neither good marketing nor politically correct. The company calls the stop Hispaniola (the large Caribbean island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic). Not long ago, I stepped ashore there with 2,000 oiled Americans, and I'm not sure more than a handful knew -- or cared -- where they were.

In the National Geographic's most recent worldwide poll of geography skills, only 13 percent of young Americans (18- to 24-year-olds) could find Iraq on a map. Bear in mind that 34 percent of them knew that an island in the television show ''Survivor" is in the South Pacific. Nations polled included Canada, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Sweden. Only the Mexicans scored lower than the Americans.

. . .

The mapmakers of the 17th and 18th centuries were called ''world describers," according to Miles Harvey, the author who explores cartographic history and theft in ''The Island of Lost Maps" (Broadway, 2001). ''Before you can explore the land, you have to explore the heavens," Harvey writes. Heavenly motions of the sun and moon provided the clockwork for the surveys of yesterday -- as they do today, 12,000 feet high.

Some two dozen satellites, each weighing about a ton, allow GPS receivers to continuously triangulate position for earthly travelers to within 30 feet of dead-on accuracy. Combine such positioning prowess with an assortment of overlay maps and sultry voices that computers are able to jam into the package and the result is dozens of products that leave the thinking up to someone -- or something -- else.

Twenty percent of new cars now come equipped with GPS systems, according to Russ Graham, a director of marketing for Brunswick New Technologies, an Illinois-based company that manufactures navigation systems. He estimates a 20 percent annual growth in this market for the foreseeable future. GPS systems, Graham points out, can now be worn on the wrists of young children and Alzheimer's patients; they come in golf carts and share not only the distance to the hole, but a club recommendation; they provide real-time feedback about traffic jams for motorists; and they can let a boat captain go from one harbor to the next with just the push of a button.

Problems arise when people equipped with all the electronic paraphernalia never learn how to use it, according to Steven Winkler, senior captain of Sea Tow Boston. Of the 800 calls for help Winkler and his associates respond to each season, about 100 of them involve lost souls who don't know how to use the gear aboard, and either can't read a chart, or don't have one. The federal government has a relatively new designation -- Electronically Aided Groundings -- for some of these boat owners who end up on the rocks or aground in too-shallow water. They knew where they were, they knew where they wanted to go, but they did not check what lay between.

''It can really get kind of sad. People buy $40,000 boats with $10,000 electronics that they can turn on, but that's about it," Winkler said.

Radio transmissions can get amusing. For example, on a foggy day earlier this season, he said he responded to a radio call that went something like this:

Skipper: ''I am aground. I'm out at Boston Light."

Arriving at Little Brewster Island, Winkler circled the structure but found no boat in trouble.

Winkler: ''Describe the lighthouse."

Skipper: ''Well it's tall. And it has a light."

Winkler: ''Is the building gray or white? Are there rocks all around it?"

Skipper: ''It's gray. And I'm on a rock."

That would be Graves Light, Winkler concluded, making a course change and proceeding 3 miles away.

In a very roundabout way, this brings us back to DeLorme and one company's effort to help youngsters get oriented. Incidentally, Dad and I found DeLorme because we had been told it was near L. L. Bean. You just follow the traffic.

. . .

A quarter century ago, David DeLorme sat down at his kitchen table to begin fashioning the first detailed book atlas of the state of Maine. It would become the first in a series of atlases and GPS products that has made the DeLorme Publishing Co. one of the country's largest map producers.

''But we began to realize that kids were losing their map skills, and electronic diversions were just part of the problem," said Cordelia DeLorme, David's wife. ''Kids just weren't being taught in school how to read a map."

So DeLorme founded the Eartha Educational Alliance, a nonprofit foundation overseen by Cordelia that annually sends about 6,000 elementary school children through a half-day exercise at company headquarters. (The Boston Public Library is in the early stages of developing a somewhat similar program, thanks to the Mapping Boston Foundation and developer/map collector Norman Leventhal.)

At DeLorme, students learn not only how to read a map, but how to think beyond their horizons -- and think big. It helps that one of the teaching tools is Eartha, the world's largest rotating globe. Eartha is a 42-foot-diameter sphere covered so meticulously in satellite images of the planet that observers feel they are standing in outer space.

One recent morning, however, in a nearby hall, the 21 students from Rhonda Weaver's fourth-grade class at the Woodside School in Topsham, Maine, were not standing, but dancing over the state of Maine.

A giant map covered the floor, divided into a grid extending up the walls, each line labeled with the proper degree of latitude or longitude. The instructor was one Ed Webster, who called out each of the four points of the compass (N--E--S--W, or ''Never! Eat! Slimy! Worms!") as he and the class two-stepped forward, right, back, left . . . .

Webster is a Mount Everest veteran and author of ''Snow in the Kingdom" (Mountain Imagery, 2001), a harrowing tale about his expedition reaching the summit 16 years ago. He has the missing ends of frostbitten fingers to help students realize there are some very high, cold places in the world.

Webster estimates that about half his students arrive not knowing the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. They leave so versed in map skills that they can conduct a treasure hunt around the Maine floor map using compasses, map keys, and latitude and longitude coordinates.

''It's the school's favorite field trip," Weaver whispered at one point during a drill in mileage calculations across the floor that could have passed for a gym class.

During one break in the action, Webster took everyone to a third-floor balcony where they could watch Eartha's Northern Hemisphere glide by.

''One reason we should learn how to read a map is so we can plan a trip to anywhere in the world," Webster explained as he highlighted landmarks with a laser pointer.

''We can do that with MapQuest," one of his charges quipped.

''No, you can't plan a trip by pushing a button or clicking on a computer mouse," Webster responded. ''Understanding the world requires more than a shopping list." More landmarks passed by, more children asked questions.

Then, to no one in particular, Webster said, ''Understanding the world beyond us has never seemed so important."

David Arnold is a freelance writer who lives in the Boston area. He can be reached by e-mail at norwester@comcast.net.

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