Rand McNally sent me a giant road atlas and for a while I’ve struggled with what to say about it.
It seems like yesterday (it was eight months ago) that I tore open the mailing pouch, asbestos-like fluff deploying skyward like fanfare to reveal my review copy of the 2019 Rand McNally Road Atlas.
A 144-page 10.875 by 15.375 inch booklet I’ve carried folded in my bag every day since April, when the atlas was published, marking the 95th edition of this oversized book of maps.
The least sarcastic of my coworkers made a comment about it.
“Well,” she said, “who doesn’t carry an atlas around all the time?”
Indeed, if you’re among those who don’t, let me share, finally, what you’ve been missing.
The craziest, most intimidating road atlas chart ever made
Imagine most of a 10.875 by 15.375 page filled with a chart containing tiny numbers representing “2,400 mileages covering 90 North American cities and U.S. national parks.” That’s what you’re looking at over on the right. Now imagine dragging your left index finger east and your right one north until your fingertips meet up at the distance between Milwaukee and Fargo to discover… that you’re possibly looking at the mileage between two other cities not Fargo and Milwaukee because the type is so small and the rows and columns are so close together that maybe you’ll want to criss-cross a couple rulers or something over the chart to make sure you’ve arrived at the correct cell.
Another co-worker, a self-described millennial, looked at the chart for a while and reported that she felt like she was reading a folklore tale. “Why,” she said, “does this exist and who gets any value from it?”
To be clear it’s not the actual mileage distance information that she thought had questionable value, it’s the format, which I gather is why the far less busy mileage-between-cities charts provided at the top of each U.S. state spread were deemed more useful by nearly everyone interviewed for this article.
It’s a relic, but I like it
Once they dug more into the U.S. state spreads, which comprise the bulk of the atlas — all 50 states and Washington, D.C., plus all the Canadian provinces and a map of Mexico thrown in for good measure — my coworkers also found it useful that each state map listed phone numbers and websites giving info about road conditions and construction. Also provided are the official website and contact number for each state’s tourism bureau, which often takes me a few tries to find online when I discover there are competing tourism entities trying to market the destination.
My deputized reviewers also found some joy in spotting landmarks from their hometowns. The same coworker overwhelmed by the big mileage chart was tickled that a small, little-known museum her parents go to was indicated on the Connecticut map.
Without rancor she noted that the atlas overall “is a relic, but I like it.”
What my wife and kids said about the atlas
My wife appreciated the fun facts like state nicknames and populations that you can glean from the state spreads, information that naturally wouldn’t be volunteered by your GPS. I asked her to turn to her home state — New Jersey, The Garden State, population 8,791,894 — to see if she spotted anything enlightening. Like my coworkers she found the on-the-road resources helpful, including numbers and websites for the state’s bridges and tunnels.
I then asked my college-age daughter Libby, who happened to be home on a school break, to give me her impressions of the atlas. No surprise, when I went into her room she was in bed looking at her phone. Leave it on my desk, she said, I’ll look at it later. It was 8:15 p.m. When I did check back just a little later, she was asleep and the atlas was where I left it.
The next day at work I texted Libby at 9:30 a.m. No response. Probably still sleeping. At 11:27 I texted again. “Did you look at it yet?” Nothing at first, but finally: “It’s wet.”
Yes, I explained, I’ve had it in my bag since April and got caught in the rain a lot and this is not the atlas with the protective vinyl cover. What else, I asked.
“I wouldn’t use it because the type is small and it’s really hard to read,” she texted.
When I got home that night I asked Libby’s sister Maya for her thoughts. It was one of those increasingly rare moments in our home where all of us — my wife, Libby, Maya, and our middle-schooler, Felix, were all in the living room, looking at our phones and not talking to each other but still, together. Maya is often reluctant to give me her opinion about anything except phone cases she’s interested in, but she’s studying design and architecture in high school now so she has more to say in general about how things are put together.
“The stuff in front — Maya was referring specifically to six pages profiling six U.S. national parks — “should be in the back, because it just doesn’t belong in the front. They should have a small map legend on every page, because you have to keep flipping to the front (the inside back cover, where the map legend is) to see what you’re looking at.”
And, Maya, added, “the type is too small and it’s really hard to read.”
“I said that first,” Libby said.
“No, I did,” Maya said.
“I was born first and you were a C-section,” Libby said. “The first thing you had to do and you couldn’t even do it right.”
I miss having these two home all the time.
But the sweet thing is, since Libby left for college she and Maya have become closer, chatting more than I ever would have imagined. The two of them remind me of what Cher says about her friends Dionne and Murray (Dionne’s boyfriend) in “Clueless.”
And then I realized, all my friends were really good in different ways. Like, Christian, he always wants things to be beautiful and interesting. Or Dionne and Murray, when they think no one is watching, are so considerate of each other.
When they think no one is watching. One of the most relatable observations ever made about relationships. From “Clueless,” one of the best movies ever made. But I digress. Libby and Maya are Dionne and Murray is what I’m trying to say.
My 12-year-old Felix, born last, got the final crack at the atlas. He’s a seventh grader immersed in a social studies curriculum that, remarkably, is still teaching kids how to read maps, so he was all over this thing.
He had just had a quiz where he had to define and recognize various map legend symbols, so Felix seemed pleased that the atlas maps were drawn with longitude and latitude as well as time zone boundaries, dragging his finger along the red line separating Central Time in Wisconsin from Eastern Time in Michigan.
He recalled that state capitals are marked by stars and had fun quickly eyeballing where each capitol was on the map. And he liked that the national parks were marked in green, noting it was more efficient to have a color representing something because you can remember it easier.
Testing Felix’s claim I turned to Wyoming and asked him if he could find the national National Parks easily — and he could, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, the latter one of the six parks profiled in front of the atlas in those pages that Maya says belong in the back.
Bottom Lines: Rand McNally Road Atlas
I agree with my daughters that the type in the road atlas is too small — Rand McNally seems aware of the issue given that the cover of the midsize atlas advertises the maps as being 35% larger than the ones in the regular road atlases — and even with my reading glasses, it’s a struggle to make out the names of the non-boldfaced cities on the maps. As for the readability of the type in the 8-page index in the back, as they say in the Garden State, population nearing 9 million, fuhgeddaboudit.
As I read through the atlas for what was perhaps only the tenth time, the pages irretrievably dogeared as well as bloated from having to dry out so often these past months, the cover separated from the four staples fastening it to the atlas, as if to say, I’ve taken my final beating as the result of your negligence and the absence of a protective vinyl cover.
I found myself looking at the inside back cover for what felt like the first time, because it was, and saw it had a map as frenetic and folklorish as its sister mileage chart in the front, the United States riddled with red varicose veins drawn to represent mileage and driving times. Arranged around the bottom of the map are charts: Squarely covering much of Baja is a metric conversion table; on the Caribbean side of Mexico off the Gulf Coast is a temperature chart yielding the conversion formulas for Celsius and Fahrenheit and next to that a chart explaining how to convert between kilometers and miles per hour.
And then it dawned on me why this atlas exists.
All this little type, all these little charts and tools and symbols and lines of every color scrawled at every possible geometrical angle were all gathered here, comprehensively, maybe even lovingly, not only because the information has the capacity to be useful and educational but because — and it’s the reason why I think my coworkers and family liked what they liked in the atlas, and why many of us travel — discovery.
We don’t always know what’s around the next bend when we hit the road. And when you scour one of the Rand McNally road atlas maps extra closely or randomly flip its pages, you’ll likely never be completely sure what you’ll find. A lot of what’s in this atlas is in there because it’s showing us everything out there that could possibly fit on these maps. And that can be useful and can give you perspective. And some of the information seems to be in here just because.
And yes, the atlas is in some respects, just as I am, a relic. But I like it.