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I love traveling.  I especially love road trips.  And I have a confession to make:  I’m a map geek.

Ever since I first learned how to read a map, back in grade school, I’ve been fascinated by maps and cartography (the art of mapping).  Cartography rhymes with photography, so it must be good, right?

For the record, I was (and still am) also intrigued by globes, and they are the most accurate depiction of our planet’s geography, but they’re not very practical for road trips.  Way too hard to fold…so back to maps.

When I was a kid, I was always the Chief Navigator when my mom and I did road trips together.  We traveled to visit family, to go to the beach, to go camping, and of course there was the ubiquitous “Sunday Drive.”

Fast-forward several decades, and road trips are still my favorite way to travel.  See yesterday’s post, “The Journey IS the Destination,” for more on my travel style.

I love the freedom that driving affords, and I love having all my photography gear at my fingertips.  Not to mention snacks and drinks and all the other comforts of a well-equipped vehicle.

As I said yesterday, I love to drive back roads, because that’s where I’ve found the best photo ops over the years.

But the drawback of driving back roads is that, unlike the interstates, they don’t tend to go in straight lines.  That’s the crux of their charm, but it can also be daunting, aggravating, and even potentially dangerous if you get lost or break down and a snowstorm begins.  It should go without saying that you should keep close tabs on the local weather forecasts when you’re planning a back road adventure: blizzards, tornadoes, thunderstorms, monsoons, flash floods, dust storms and road washouts are just some of the factors I’ve had to take into account on various different road trips I’ve taken.

Besides accurate and current weather forecasts, you should also have fabulous current maps in your vehicle, and know how to use them.

For decades I was, and still am, a member of a travel club that offers roadside assistance, towing, and maps and guidebooks galore.  Almost every year I get more maps and guidebooks than my dues theoretically cover.  If I don’t, I realize I’m not traveling enough, and try to restructure my life accordingly.

And for decades I’ve relied on these maps almost exclusively when traveling.  But due to the economy (they say) or corporate greed (I say) the travel club has cut back significantly on the number and types of maps they provide.  The first maps to hit the chopping block were of course the nicely detailed maps of rural areas, where I love to shoot.  I started finding that the back roads I love to drive and shoot on “don’t exist” on the new maps.  Huh?

I was still trying to get by with the big paper maps that didn’t show the road I was on when I went to Maine.  Now, for the record, let me state that I love Maine.  I believe it’s one of our most photogenic states.  It’s hard for me to get anywhere in Maine, because there are photo ops around almost every turn in the road.

But Maine, and particularly the coast of Maine, is a challenge to navigate.  And I’m obsessed with the Maine coast.

For example, if you drive the California coast on Highway 1, in the most scenic areas at least, the highway parallels the ocean, and sticks pretty close to it, and it’s not too challenging to get on and off the highway to go exploring.

In Maine, on the other hand, even though you could say that their coastal highway, also called “1” except where it’s called “1-A” to deliberately confuse the tourists, roughly parallels the coast, there are many areas where Route 1 is far away from the ocean, and there are numerous peninsulas that project many miles into the Atlantic, and most of these peninsulas are not connected to each other by bridges except on the main highway.  And it’s exploring these peninsulas, and their small towns and harbors, that I enjoy the most.  But at some point, one does wish to get back to the main highway, and that can be a challenge when the travel club map doesn’t show the road you’re on.

So I was at a photo workshop in New England recently, and the instructors were touting the value of DeLorme Atlases.  I was at first skeptical.  My map was free (with my travel club membership, anyway) and the DeLorme Atlas retailed for…$19.95?  You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought.  Why shell out $20 for an “Atlas” when that same amount of money will buy me a delicious lobster roll and a microbrew?  These guys are nuts.

The instructors (who, like most photographers, are in fact a little nutty, but they happened to be right on this point) said that the detail of the atlases surpassed most paper maps, the map was in a format that was easy enough to use while driving (not that you should ever look at a map while literally DRIVING), large enough to see a decent area of land, but still manageable in the front seat of a vehicle, there were pages of lists of cool things to photograph…the Maine atlas has an entire page that lists nothing but “Unique Natural Features.”  According to the 2009 Maine Atlas, there are exactly 100.  Go shoot them all, and that alone will keep you busy for at least a couple of weeks, if not a month or more.  Also, because of the larger format of the atlas, there was plenty of room to make field notes right on the map, thereby turning it into a travel journal, and especially helpful after you get back home and are trying to remember where you took that image of the awesome waterfall or harbor or moose or whatever.

Finally, a selling point for me, though perhaps not everyone would place as strong a value on this feature, is that the cover is laminated.  That means that when I invariably spill my coffee on the atlas, it runs right off, and at worst leaves a funky tie-died pattern on the outer edges of the pages as a souvenir.  When I spill my coffee on a fold-out paper map, it’s ruined.

I was still skeptical, but since I was heading to Maine immediately after the workshop, I decided I would go check out the DeLorme world headquarters, which happen to be in Yarmouth, Maine.

If you ever get to Yarmouth, I definitely recommend stopping in at the DeLorme mothership.  For one thing, you can see the world’s largest globe.  It’s three stories tall (over 41′ in diameter).  And yes, it spins.  And you can look at it from all three levels.  And it even has a name:  Eartha.

Check out:  http://www.delorme.com/about/eartha.aspx

They also have a wonderful bookstore, where they of course feature their own atlases, but there are also guidebooks a-plenty, toys for the kids, etc.

I broke down and bought a Maine Atlas, resigned myself to crackers for lunch instead of the lobster roll and ale I’d been planning on, and began using it in the DeLorme parking lot.  And I have to admit that the nutty photo instructors were right.  It far surpasses any paper map of Maine I’ve ever seen.

I’m selectively building a DeLorme atlas library of the states I travel to the most.  I’m not buying them all because a) I’m not rich, b) that a LOT of lobster rolls and beers, and c) I’m a strong believer in having the most current map available.

Though I must point out that DeLorme offers some nice discounts if you buy a regional set of atlases that combines several states, and you can even buy a set for the entire US for a deep discount, if you’re so inclined.

For more information, check out:

http://shop.delorme.com/OA_HTML/DELibeCCtpSctDspRte.jsp?section=10042&minisite=10020

And for any serious outdoor photographer who is not yet a DeLorme convert, and refuses to become one, I’ve just got two words for you:  You’re nuts!

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