Look at a map of Illinois. Notice how Peoria, Bloomington and Champaign all line up, one, two, three, like the stars in Orion’s belt, hanging in a row southwest of Chicago. Beyond them ...
What? You don’t have a map of Illinois? Well, go online and ... oh, I see the problem. On your phone, a map of Illinois is about 3 inches tall.
Pity. The Illinois map I’m looking at is a mighty 19 inches tall, splayed across two big pages of the 2021 Rand McNally Road Atlas, a catalogue of delight, a joyful anachronism persisting in our Google Map age.
“Huh?” you’re wondering about now. “Is this not about crisis? I’m confused.”
Rest assured, this is also about crisis but indirectly. As the novel coronavirus shifted from terrifying new pandemic to wearying endless ordeal, I began to wonder what might be written about that wasn’t overburdened nurses frantically trying to save gasping patients in chaotic ERs. The machinery of former life must be grinding away somewhere. If only I knew how to find it ...
“A new Road Atlas in the midst,” read the subject line of an April 21 email.
“Good morning,” Kendra Ensor, marketing VP at Rand McNally, began. “I know it’s a strange time, and with the state COVID-19 guidelines in place, recreational travel is pretty much at a standstill.”
Smart. A lot of companies wouldn’t even nod at the elephant in the room. “As is customary this time of year, and has been since 1924, the new edition Road Atlas has just released.”
Admire the way that sentence is structured —“has just released.” There is no company releasing the Road Atlas. The Road Atlas magically appears, at its customary time, of its own accord.
I’d have gone with something more, um, aggressive.
“The NBA called it quits. The airlines — unpleasant at the best of times — sulk in the shadows, unmourned. So it’s up to a company born in Chicago in 1856, one that survived both THE CIVIL WAR and the GREAT FIRE OF 1871 and sure as heck isn’t going to be deterred by a mere simultaneous pandemic/recession/civil convulsion from proudly presenting the Road Atlas that has GUIDED and DELIGHTED Americans for nearly 100 years. You may not be bold enough to use it now, but you’re GONNA!!!”
I’ve been telling my wife “when this is over, we’re hiking Yosemite” so often it’s become a mantra, to conjure future freedom while squirming in plague-induced confinement.
“Yosemite,” I’ll whisper. “Yo ... seh ... mi ... tee.”
A million questions. This COVID-19 business — affecting atlas sales, is it?
“That’s been a bit of a challenge,” replied Ensor. “Many of our atlases are sold through brick-and-mortar retail stores that have been closed. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen increased shipments as some states and retailers are opening back up.”
Ensor said while the demand for folded city maps has indeed declined, the Road Atlas business has remained steady.
“Several years ago, we saw an uptick in sales of the Rand McNally Road Atlas, which has generally held,” she said.
And why not? It costs a modest $14.95. You can buy it online at www.randmcnally.com/publishing.
I was impressed with how the Road Atlas was repurposed from prosaic navigation tool to fanciful dream guide.
“We wanted to offer a respite, something that would be fun to plan and something to look forward to,” she said. “So our message this year was that folks dreaming of travel and forthcoming days, can get their atlas and plan future road trips.”
Ensor gave me an idea when she said the atlases are also for emergencies.
“The Road Atlas is a part of a car’s toolkit, like a flashlight or jumper cables,” she said. “It’s good to be prepared.”
Can’t you see the ad? Rugged survivalist dad leaning over the hood of his car, Road Atlas spread out, illuminated by flashlight. Concerned hot mom looking on. Kids in the car asleep.
Headline: “YOU’LL NEVER GET TO YOUR IDAHO BUNKER WITHOUT IT!”
After studying Illinois, I knew where to go next: California/Northern.
On the lower left, “Yosemite National Park” in detail. Shifting to the state map, I glanced at Lassen Volcanic Nat’l Park, no, then Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness — the name alone is worth $14.95 — slid down the page, past Sacramento, over the fold and found Yosemite waiting, just east of Modesto.
“I’m coming for you, baby,” I said, tapping the map.