In praise of the Thomas Guide

thomas-guide-2009.jpgThis idea comes around from periodically, but it's always true so why not. In this weekend's New York Times, LA Times columnist Meghan Daum waxed on the eternal usefulness of the Thomas Guide, the map book from the Thomas Brothers that used to be so ubiquitous in Los Angeles. I still use a 1987 Thomas Guide to Los Angeles County at my desk to make the call on city limits, something you can't do on Google Maps.

Daum's piece is really about getting around Los Angeles. She's wrong about National Boulevard, however — a very useful breaker of the grid to locals who know it.


Twelve years ago, when I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t dare to so much as walk to the mailbox without bringing along the Thomas Guide. Known as the bible of Southern California, the thick, spiral-bound atlas was so universally relied upon that businesses and party hosts often cited page numbers and grid coordinates when giving directions. My copy was the 1998 edition, given to me by a friend who left the city right around the time I came. Vowing never to return, she handed it over like a dieter discarding a pair of fat pants: I won’t be needing this anymore.

For at least a year, I kept the Thomas Guide balanced on my lap while I drove. Without it, I felt not just lost but naked, reckless. It was as if the book were an extension of my body or an infant that would become fussy and anxious if removed from its mother’s embrace. Except I was the one who would panic if it slid outside my reach. I drove carefully, not just because it’s the responsible thing to do, but also to avoid stopping short in traffic and sending the guide tumbling to the floor, where it threatened to cause greater peril by lodging itself in the pedals.

To leave the house without the Guide, even for a trip as unambitious as a run to a nearby supermarket, was to risk losing my coordinates entirely and landing in a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs where the only escape route was the Boulevard That Defies All Logic. Every city has one of these, a corridor on which you can somehow wind up driving north and south simultaneously, a road on which you can think you’re pulling into a gas station but instead find yourself merging into bullet-speed traffic on a major freeway. In Los Angeles, this would be National Boulevard. (Subrecommendation: Never take National.)

Eventually, the Thomas Guide graduated from my lap to the passenger seat, then the back seat and then, finally, the seat pocket behind the passenger seat, where it remained for years like a messy school binder shoved in a forgotten locker….

She notes, sagely, that GPS and Waze don't really cut it in LA. "Out-of-town visitors to Los Angeles like to say things like 'driving here is a sport.' But really, it’s an art," Daum writes. "It’s an art that requires intuition, patience and a sense of the topography of the region."

More by Kevin Roderick:
'In on merit' at USC
Read the memo: LA Times hires again
Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
Recent Driving stories on LA Observed:
Elon Musk close to drilling under Pico and Sepulveda
LA streets are contested space where no improvement goes unpunished
What I learned from my trip to the solar eclipse
Low and slow all for show
Nice of them to tell us where we are
California Incline redo in timelapse
Angeles Crest is one audacious highway
Hollywood versus the freeway that carries its name