Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 17, 2010

Getting the Big Picture

This is the conclusion of a 3-part series about signs, maps and navigation. Scroll down to see the previous entries, or go HERE for #1 and HERE for #2.

In the first post about navigating — wayfinding, as some call it — I referred to a series of articles on In the final installment, the author considers the question of whether GPS and other “intelligent” directional systems will make signs obsolete. Read it HERE. I’ve focused more on maps than on directional signs in this article, but increasing reliance on GPS represents a challenge to the primacy of maps and to map-reading “literacy.”  Here’s an illustration, again a true episode from my video production experience, though none of the witnesses are likely to admit to its veracity.

My production team and I — four of us — were scouting a video shoot in a rural area of central California. We were going to shoot footage of the world-class cycling team my company sponsored, riding through the rolling hills around Solvang, California. That cycling team had some of the sport’s greatest riders, and were preparing for the new season in which they were considered as candidates to win the Tour de France (yes, they won the team championship!). Our production would include a truck with a boom-mounted camera, a cameraman on the back of a motorcycle and a third ground-based camera. We were scouting the proposed route the team would ride so that we could plan out our shoot locations in advance. From the top of a hill, we surveyed the countryside. The director, the cameraman and the location scout were studying a little GPS screen, attempting to determine where “Oak Hill Road” was. Looking at my MAP, I could SEE Oak Hill Road, over THERE, down in that valley, maybe half a mile away. I tried repeatedly insisting, “Just drive over THERE!” It took them ten minutes to decide that Oak Hill Road was over THERE. Argh.

GPS will get you from just about wherever you are to almost anywhere you need to go. But maps give one the Big Picture and sometimes it’s that big picture that matters. It’s what orients us in the middle of a confusing morass of city streets and also gives us a sense of where we are in a tangled woods or amidst boulders in a landscape. We have a sense of how far we have to go and how long it might take us to get there. Most importantly, it opens up our connection with the world around us, giving us a sense of place, of confidence and security. We know more about what’s nearby, or what’s far away, and it gives us a framework for planning a trip or a walk or an entire day of sightseeing.

Maps would have helped lots of historic and fictional figures, not least of them, our old friend, Sir Gawain, with whom we visited back during the Christmas season. The Green Giant gave Gawain instructions to meet him at the Green Chapel, but without a map, Gawain wandered around the wasteland of Wirral in terrible winter weather before he stumbled across Bertilak’s Castle, which led him to the chapel. Odysseus? There’s a man who could’ve used a map.

I learned most of what I know about maps from my dad. On family trips, he’d hand the map to one of us kids in the back seats of the station wagon and say something like, “Figure out where we need to turn off to get to Mammoth Cave.”

Now it’s a passion. Dad did much more study of maps than I did in preparation for our trips to Alaska and Montana, but we had a common understanding of The Picture — how we might get from St. Mary down to East Glacier and where we might stop for lunch (huckleberry pie!) and then head west again back towards the park entrance.

One of the advantages of having that Big Picture in your head is that it lets you improvise, as Dad did when we left Montana: “If we take this road up into northeastern Montana, we’ll eventually find a road that’ll take us back south to Coeur d’Alene.” It’s the same confidence that jazz players have: you can blow the heck out of one note or arpeggiate the entire Ab-minor scale in 16th notes. So long as you know the chart, the rhythm section will always be there, and come back in after your cadenza, right on time. That’s what you can do when you have the map in your head — when you have The Picture — that you can’t do when all you’re doing is going from Point A to Point B.

Teaching your kids to read a map, to understand basic directions and having a sense of place and the relationships of things will pay them dividends all their lives. For some, like me, it will give them a pleasure that will stay with them: the joy of pulling out the map of Venice and picturing how a 3-mile morning run might take you to parts of the city you’d otherwise never reach. I’ve run solo in Paris and Hong Kong and, well, all over, because I had that mental picture. With just a couple of free hours one morning in Beijing, I knew enough about where Tiananmen Square was and set off in that direction. I could not read a single sign, nor could I ask directions of a single person I met, but, in only a mile or so, I was running around the perimeter of the Square (about a mile in circumference, by the way), being passed by squads of the Chinese Army on their morning runs, the big moon face of that evil bastard Mao, slaughterer of millions, gazing serenely at me.

Get a map!

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2016



  1. Nice series. Similar parenting experiences and Boy Scouting have provided me with the ability to arrive in an area new to me and have a “feel” for where i am and where I need to go. Be Prepared.


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