Fun facts unfold in the Maryland state map

Find your way from here to there with the free highway map

May 31, 2010

There might not be any such thing as a free lunch, but there are free highway maps. They just might be the best deal in Maryland, and in many other states.

Let's stipulate upfront that "free" does not mean "without cost." These maps are printed at taxpayer expense and are distributed free at travel information kiosks, certain state government offices, the rest stops on Interstate 95 and other places.

Go ahead, grab one. Grab two. Grab enough for the whole family as long as you leave some for the next map fanatic. You only take a loss on the printing bill if you fail to own one of your own.

When you've grabbed a copy of the Maryland Official Highway Map, spread it out and take a look. It's really quite a remarkable fount of information — useful and otherwise.

The maps, by tradition, include a picture of the governor — either alone or with family or political partner. These photos can tell you something about who's in and who's out in the governor's inner circle — much like the old May Day pictures from the Kremlin. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't there a recent chief executive who started out being pictured with his lieutenant governor but ended up on the map with a bird?

One thing that jumps out is the unique shape of our state — rather like an antique flintlock pistol pointed at West Virginia. The irregular shape allows the map editors to tuck in a handy mileage chart — did you know it's 125 miles from Glen Burnie to Ocean City? — and an index to help you find any city, town or hamlet in the state from Abell in St. Mary's County to Zihlman in Allegany County. (I had no idea where these tiny towns were until I used the handy key telling me the former was in K-17 and the latter in A-5.)

Perusing that list of inhabited places gives one a sense of what an odd little state this is. Where else are you going to find Accident, Bestpitch, Bivalve, Bootjack, Boring and Crapo before you even get to the Ds? Would you rather bask in Sunshine, live in Unity, walk hand-in-hand in Friendship or abide in Gratitude?

Have a bored teenage passenger who's a whiz in geography? Hand the kid a map and challenge him or her to find eight towns that correspond to world capitals. Hint: Berlin (Germany), Damascus (Syria), Dublin (Ireland), Kingston (Jamaica), Lisbon (Portugal), Monrovia (Liberia), Montevideo (Uruguay), Moscow (Russia). There are more, but you'll have to get into some pretty obscure countries. Your choice whether to recognize Cardiff (Wales).

Another great feature of the shape of Maryland is that it gives the cartographer an incentive to include generous parts of neighboring states. For instance, you get the entire map of Delaware as a bonus. And unlike some other, more stingy state maps, Maryland's gives good detail on neighboring states — even parts of New Jersey — until it runs out of paper.

If somebody's locked you in the bathroom with nothing but a Maryland highway map, you can occupy yourself for hours absorbing details that could make you rich when you get to Final Jeopardy! and the category is Maryland Geography.

Answer: Maryland's highest point. Question: What is Backbone Mountain? You'll find it at the western edge of Garrett County, just south of Gnegy Church.

Turn over the map and you get a really cool blow-up of Central Maryland, taking in most of the Baltimore and Washington regions, including all of the District of Columbia and a good chunk of Northern Virginia. It might not show the street where you live, but it'll likely get down to the nearest street big enough to merit a stoplight. It has parks and Metro stations and light rail stops and regional malls. What more could you ask for?

Then there are more than a dozen insets, including downtown Baltimore and popular places from Deep Creek Lake to Ocean City. Looking for the Town Hall in Bel Air? The Maryland highway map will guide you there. Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen? No problem.

Of course, to many people, especially those of the younger generations, maps on paper are an anachronism. Why learn to read a map when you have a GPS unit that will tell you where to turn without having to decipher squiggles on a piece of paper?

Well, one of these days that GPS voice will go mute, or the unit will be stolen or the satellite might be shot down by those 14-legged invaders from the Planet Yellamo, and what are these folks who can't read maps going to do? Ask the "pump jockey" at the "service" station? Good luck with that.

No, there's nothing like a foldable, readable map to help you find your way when you're going somewhere and to tickle the imagination when you're not.

So the folks at the Maryland Department of Transportation who oversee the publication of the annual edition of the map — along with its companion bicycle map and Maryland Byways map — should know there are some folks out there who appreciate their cartographic efforts.

Maybe the next edition will even have some casinos on it.

To order a copy of the Maryland Official Highway Map, go to

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