When I was a boy my father used to bring home maps for my sister and me. We would spread them out on the floor and he would pay us a nickel for every river we found or every mountain range or sea. As a result of this practice, I always did well in geography and on map reading tests.

Working on the ambulance I have always considered myself a good map man – at least until one time recently when I had to read one of our smaller print maps at night in an ambulance with poor front cab lights. Age.

Today, many of the newer employees have GPSs that they affix to the windshield at the start of the shift. I usually shake my head and say, I know the streets I’ll tell you how to go. One day while I worked on the patient in the back and my partner sat in the driver’s seat trying to program the GPS for an outer laying hospital, I just called out the directions. Get on 84…, etc. I looked up ten minutes later and saw my partner had indeed gotten on 84, but instead of going west, he had gone east. I screwed up. I thought he knew the town we were going to was west of the city, not east.

I just finished reading a book called Maphead, which was an interesting tour of maps and map lore, covering everything from the first antique maps to Goggle Earth.

The author lamented the inability of many people now days not just to read a map, but the ability to reckon, to use landmarks and the sun, and sense of direction to find their way.

Years ago I drove a cab in Alexandria, Virginia. To get my cab license, I had to take a test which included being able to write directions from one place to another without looking at a map. For a week before the test I poured over the city map till I had learned all the streets. I successfully passed my test and went on to really enjoy the job. I worked six days a week twelve hours a day. I knew how to get anywhere. I loved the varied passengers I carried and I loved the flow of the streets.

Driving a cab was a lot like being a paramedic. Everyday was different. You saw things you could never imagine, and you learned new skills. Finding your way was one of them. As much as I love patient care and medicine, I also love navigating the streets. I like knowing where the streets are and the best way to get to them. I navigate mainly from memory.

Working in a fly car in the city, I need to know where every street is. I don’t have a partner to read the map for me as I drive. Now I have been working in the city for nearing twenty years. Still sometimes there are streets I don’t know. Sometimes, I have to pull over and look at the map or else ask for a cross street on the radio.

Reading Maphead made me realize I had never really spent time pouring over a Hartford map like I used to pour over the Alexandria map. So I took it out and really started studying it. I saw street I had never heard of and locations of places I never knew existed. My goal is to memorize the map, to be able to on questioning give directions to any street or place in the city limits without consulting the map, to never have to pull over to check my way.

Unfortunately since writing this not a shift has gone by that I haven’t at least once had to stop and check a street location. I keep studying, but I think either my memory is frailer or I am more risk averse and would prefer to be sure than 97% sure.

The other interesting thing about the book was the description of old beautiful illustrated maps. I wish I had drawing ability. I would love to make my own beautiful map of Hartford, illustrated like those maps of the United States with Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, orange trees in Florida, and Kodiak bears in Alaska. I would put overturned cars off I-84, crazy PCPers shouting naked on Garden Street, do-ragged gunmen on Albany Avenue, snoring drunks at Park and Hungerford, chain-smoking paranoids on Farmington Avenue, heroin ODs apneic in the parking lot of the fast food restaurants on Weston Street, prisoners clutching their chest in the lockup on Lafayette Street, and old women with syncope at the churches on Blue Hills Avenue. Would it be a bestseller? Probably not, but I would get a kick out of it.


  • CS says:

    When I worked in a city, my partner and I make a conscious effort to learn the locals without a GPS. Our cad would show the address on a map, but we learned the route, and typicallly did well.

    I have a hard time being as good at the area at my PRN jobs just out of lack of habit. But, I’ve learned the joys of navagating in a solo car recently. I use google maps alot, but make a bigger effort to learn the local cause there’s nobody to hide behind.

    • medicscribe says:

      I sometimes use my iphone to type in an address because we rarely get business names from dispatch. I typed in 210 Capitol the other day and saw it was the Capitol building so I knew right where to go, rather than bothering to check for numbers.

  • Mike says:

    Probably should put Mt. Rushmore in So. Dakota.

  • Sally says:

    This post is great! As a new EMT, I’ll be the first to admit I’m GPS-dependant. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been led on an out-of-the-way route to a residence, only to find out from one of the veterans that there was a much easier way to get there. Any advice on how to get really good at GPS-less navigation would be welcome!

  • fireball says:

    Call me “old”, but, being over 40, I grew up reading and using paper maps. I learned the “overall” layout of the area (not just the street I was looking for). Sadly, society as a whole has digressed to a level where “common sense” and basic life skills are no longer common. They are the exception.

    Most folks today know of only one way to get wherever they are going. If, for some reason, they are unable to utilize that route, they are truly lost (both figuratively and literally). They have no idea that “righting” their course involves one turn to the right, two turns to the left, and another turn to the right. Instead, the try call someone listed in their address book (because why would you memorize a phone number when it is listed there?) and/or spend a few minutes trying to “recalculate” the GPS/Navigation system.

    We now live in the age of “smart” phones and “dumb” people.

  • Pete says:

    We may practice a lost art but it is always in great demand.
    I was lucky my dad was a Post Office Letter Carrier and I walked with him in the summer. I not only knew the streets but the houses and hydrants as well.
    At my new station I was encouraged to talk the response. Not right or left but “North on Pearl, East on East, North on Cone. And there’s always someone willing to correct you if you make a mistake.
    And of course there is always map study and just getting out and driving your first due.

  • BH says:

    You make Supervisor or something?

    • medicscribe says:

      No, They had me in an FTO fly car, but they are redoing the shifts and I am back in a regular ambulance for the time being until they decide if they want to go back to a city fly car. I really enjoed it while I was doing it.

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