Ohio humorist Ian Frazier once said: “Romance lives in every page of Rand McNally.”
Peter Dalbis has been alive for 76 years, and at least 50 of those were spent following directions in Rand McNally road atlases.
Dalbis didn’t stop using paper atlases when online competitors like MapQuest and Yahoo Maps came into vogue in the late ’90s, and he remains a stalwart Rand McNally supporter even in an era when almost everyone has a GPS device in their back pocket.
“I want to open up an atlas and say, ‘Oh, here’s Colorado, here’s Route 26, this is where I want to go,’ ” he says. “GPS can’t give me that.”
Dalbis and his wife, who are both retired and living in Oak Park, Ill., have crisscrossed the nation several times, for both family vacations and work trips, and they’ve done it all with the only atlas brand he trusts — even when that atlas has been wrong.
“Sometimes there were missing roads,” he admits. “Or a road on the map that didn’t technically exist. But we’d figure it out. You can’t be complacent with an atlas, not like those people who put all their trust in a GPS. We never drove a car into a swamp because our Rand McNally told us to, I’ll tell you that much.”
Those “missing” roads are just one of the reasons that Rand McNally, the largest commercial mapmaker in the US, has published a new North America road atlas every year since 1924. “Each new edition features thousands of changes that could reflect anything from road changes to a name change of a town or geographical feature update,” says Alexis Sadoti, a spokesperson for Rand McNally. The just-released 95th edition, which covers all 50 US states and Canadian provinces, is no exception.
Changes this year include updated information on Interstates 69, 95 and 11, an expanded view of the Jersey Shore and a new “detail map” of national parks like Grand Canyon and Yosemite.
Keeping the atlas as accurate as possible year to year, in a digital age when drivers expect their maps to give up-to-the-minute traffic updates, is no small task. “We have a fixed page and a fixed number of pages, so there’s not a lot of flexibility there,” says Tom Vitacco, who’s worked with the company for 33 years — first as a cartographer in the mid-’80s and today as the director of GIS (geographic information systems). “Every page has to fit states as big as Texas and as small as Delaware,” he tells me from Skokie, Ill., the world headquarters of Rand McNally.
“Obviously you can’t show nearly as much of Texas or Alaska as you can of Delaware, so we have to get creative.” If a new monument or park pops up in an already overcrowded geographic area, his cartography team has to decide if including it means any towns or roads have to be, in his words, “sacrificed.”
It’s easy to forget how much this atlas was ingrained in driving culture, and for how long. Rand McNally was founded as a printing company that worked mostly with railroads. They published their first roadmap for cars in 1904 (covering “New York City & Vicinity”), and their first road atlas, the “Auto Chum,” in 1924. The debut countrywide atlas featured hand-drawn maps of all 48 states — Alaska and Hawaii were not yet part of the union — and included only paved roads, zero miles of interstate and no index.
If you wanted to find a town and didn’t know where it was located, you had to flip through the pages until you found its name in the fine print.
They soon became ubiquitous with driving in America. Rand McNally owned the mapping world in the 20th century. Nearly every automobile had one, as did every school and gas station. Even Charles Lindbergh navigated with one in his plane. McNally didn’t just map the nation’s highways, it helped shape them.
They were the first to instigate numbered highways because the long names were taking up too much room on their maps. (John Brink, a McNally draftsman, came up with the idea and was rewarded for his innovation with a $100 bonus.) It took a few years, but the numbering system was eventually adopted by state and federal highway authorities.
They had the occasional snafu — in 1989, the company came under fire for omitting North Dakota, South Dakota and Oklahoma from the atlas, reportedly for “space limitations” — but for the most part, Rand McNally dominated the century. Their annual sales passed $100 million during the ’70s, according to The Encyclopedia of Chicago, and they opened retail stores across the country in the late ’80s.
In the next century, they tried to adapt to new technology, developing electronic navigation systems for long-haul truckers and a portable dashboard tablet designed for older vehicles. But by 2003, they were $400 million in debt and declaring bankruptcy. (They just barely survived, thanks to an investment from buyout firm Leonard Green & Partners.)
The paper atlas remains their signature item, and the company insists that business has never been better. While they declined to share exact numbers, a spokesperson claims that sales were up 5 percent in 2017 and have been climbing steadily for years. They also declined to share details on their customer demographics, but if you ask around (as we did), it’s pretty clear that their base leans older.
But there’s also Ken Jennings, the 44-year-old “Jeopardy!” contestant (his six-month winning streak from 2004 has yet to be beaten) and author of 2011’s “Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks,” who still uses his Rand McNally atlas. “I love it very much,” he says. “It usually lives on my bookshelf but goes into the car for road trips. It’s true that a phone GPS can do most of what a road atlas can, but a Rand McNally road atlas is pretty much a cultural talisman of the open road at this point.”
A McNally atlas may not have magical powers, but as Peter Dalbis reminds us, it’s unlikely to send you into a swamp. You can’t say the same for GPS. In a 2018 insurance company survey, 77 percent of drivers who describe themselves as “rarely distracted” admitted to viewing GPS navigation while behind the wheel. (Just 10 percent admitted to texting or emailing.) And all that GPS use has resulted in some truly staggering accidents over the years, with cars plowing into bike trails, railroad tracks and even houses. Earlier this year, a Vermont driver steered his car into a lake on the advice of navigation app Waze.
In 2017, cars ended up in Massachusetts lakes and Ontario ponds because drivers chose to believe GPS instead of their own eyes. A Californian woman sued Google Maps for $100,000, claiming their “reckless and negligent” directions caused her to walk onto a busy highway and suffer “severe permanent physical, emotional and mental injuries.”
Unsurprisingly, her lawsuit was thrown out of court.
Paper atlases have their own accuracy problems. One of the biggest headaches for Vitacco is monitoring new highways and interstates, which don’t always get completed on schedule. Like Interstate 11, which was first proposed in 2012 as a highway corridor between Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nevada (eventually stretching from Canada to Mexico), but every year there was the question of whether it’d be finished (or finished enough) to be included in the McNally atlas.
“We can’t put it in too early, because then people will want to drive it and it’s not even open yet,” Vitacco says. “But we can’t put it in too late ’cause then we miss our print window and everyone will write in and say, ‘Where’s Interstate 11?’ ” They opted to add the mostly completed Interstate 11 in the latest edition, “but it was a nail-biter,” Vitacco says.
Customer feedback is something that Rand McNally takes seriously or at least claims to. “The email address on the atlas, that comes right to us,” Vitacco insists. “I answer every one of them, because it’s important.” Before email, customers shared their praise or criticism via the feedback cards provided with every atlas.
Amanda Cohen, who now lives in Los Angeles, was a contract employee for Rand McNally during the early 2000s, and her job involved reading and recording all of those customer reviews. She still remembers some of her favorites:
“The dirt road to the lake isn’t in there. Why not?”
“Why don’t you show where all the mailboxes are?”
“Why does this map not tell me if this is a left turn or a right turn?”
“There’s a new street in this town but I’m not going to tell you where because I’m not going to do your job for you.”
Fans of the Rand McNally atlas can be an eccentric bunch. But when they explain why they still use something as antiquated as an atlas in a world dominated by GPS, they make a convincing case. Jeff Schramm, a professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo., keeps a Rand McNally atlas in his car at all times.
“GPS navigation doesn’t give you the big picture, and it doesn’t tell you what’s up ahead other than your next turn,” he says. He has questions that GPS can’t answer, like, “How far to the next rest stop?” “How many miles until the next good-sized town for food?”
“What was that river we just passed?”
GPS, with its horse-in-blinders perspective, will never have the context of an atlas. And what’s more, an atlas forces you to be an active participant in your own travels.
As that confused customer wrote to the McNally cartographers almost two decades ago, “Why does this map not tell me if this is a left turn or a right turn?” Because it’s a map, not a sherpa.
Every decision is yours; there’s no disembodied voice demanding your blind obedience even if it doesn’t know what the hell it’s talking about. “With GPS, you’re giving over your sense of where you are in the world to a machine,” says Bret Scott, 48, a longtime Rand McNally atlas owner who lives in Alpine, Texas.
“With an atlas, if I missed my turn, that’s usually on me. But because it’s on me, I’m interacting with the real world, looking for landmarks, using my mind to be present.
“I’m not a Luddite,” Scott says. “I love technology. But I also like knowing where I am.”
Rand McNally atlases may not be going anywhere, but it remains to be seen if the newest edition flies off shelves.
Dalbis, who claims his dog-eared copy has never left his car, hasn’t bought a new Rand McNally atlas in years. “It’s falling apart, but it works just fine,” he insists.
Asked if he’s planning on buying the 95th edition, he just shrugs.
“Probably not,” he says. “I’ll get a new one when this one disintegrates.”