“My wound is geography.”
— Pat Conroy
They say you’re not really grown up until you’ve moved the last box of your stuff out of storage at your parents’. If that’s true, I believe I will stay young forever, ageless and carefree as Dorian Gray while the cardboard at my parents’ house molders and fades. I know, everybody’s parents’ attic or basement has its share of junk, but the eight-foot-tall mountain of boxes filling one bay of my parents’ garage isn’t typical pack-rat clutter. It looks more like the warehouse in the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The last time I was home, I waded into the chaos in hopes of liberating a plastic bucket of my childhood Legos. I didn’t find the Legos, much to my six-year-old son’s chagrin, but I was surprised to come across a box with my name on the side, written in the neater handwriting of my teenaged self. The box was like an archaeological dig of my adolescence and childhood, starting with R.E.M. mixtapes and Spy magazines on top, moving downward through strata of Star Trek novelizations and Thor comics and ending on the most primal bedrock of my youthful nerdiness: a copy of Hammond’s Medallion World Atlas from 1979.
I wasn’t expecting the Proustian thrill I experienced as I pulled the huge green book from the bottom of the box. Sunbeam-lit dust motes froze in their dance; an ethereal choir sang. At seven years old, I had saved up my allowance for months to buy this atlas, and it became my most prized possession. I remember it sometimes lived at the head of my bed at night next to my pillow, where most kids would keep a beloved security blanket or teddy bear. Flipping through its pages, I could see that my atlas had been as well-loved as any favorite plush toy: The gold type on the padded cover was worn, the corners were dented, and the binding was so shot that most of South America had fallen out and been shoved back in upside down.
Today, I will still cheerfully cop to being a bit of a geography wonk. I know my state capitals — hey, I even know my Australian state capitals. The first thing I do in any hotel room is break out the tourist magazine with the crappy city map in it. My “bucket list” of secret travel ambitions isn’t made up of boring places like Athens or Tahiti. I want to visit off-the-beaten-path oddities like Weirton, West Virginia (the only town in the U.S. that borders two different states apart from its own) or Victoria Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut (home to the world’s largest “triple island” — that is, the world’s largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island). But my childhood love of maps, I started to remember as I paged through the atlas, was something much more than this casual weirdness. I was consumed.
Back then, I could literally look at maps for hours. I was a fast and voracious reader, and keenly aware that a page of hot Roald Dahl or Encyclopedia Brown action would only last me 30 seconds or so. But each page of an atlas was an almost inexhaustible trove of names and shapes and places, and I relished that sense of depth, of comprehensiveness. Travelers will return to a favorite place many times, and order the same dish at the same cafe and watch the sun set from the same vantage point. I could do the same thing as a frequent armchair traveler, enjoying the familiarity of sights I had noticed before while always being surprised by new details. Look how Ardmore, Alabama, is only a hundred feet away from its neighbor Ardmore, Tennessee — but there are 4,303 miles between Saint George, Alaska, and Saint George, South Carolina. Look at the lace-like coastline of the Musandam Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Arabian nation of Oman, an intricate fractal snowflake stretching into the Strait of Hormuz. Children love searching for tiny new details in a sea of complexity. It’s the same principle that sold a bajillion Where’s Waldo? books.
Mapmakers must know this — that detail, to many map lovers, is not just a means but an end. The office globe next to my desk right now is pretty compact, but it makes room for all kinds of backwater hamlets in the western United States: Alpine, Texas; Burns, Oregon; Mott, North Dakota (population 808, about the same as a city block or two of Manhattan’s Upper East Side). Even Ajo, Arizona, makes the cut, and it’s not even incorporated as a town — it’s officially a CDP, or “census-designated place.” What do these spots all have in common, besides the fact that no one has ever visited them without first running out of gas? First, they all have nice short names. Second, they’re each the only thing for miles around. So they neatly fill up an empty spot on the globe, and therefore make the product look denser with information.
But I also remember a competing instinct in my young mind: a love for the way maps could suggest adventure by hinting at the unexplored. Joseph Conrad famously wrote about this urge at the beginning of Heart of Darkness:
“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’ ”When I was a “little chap,” there were (and are) still a few mostly blank spaces on the map: Siberia, Antarctica, the Australian Outback. But I knew these lacunae weren’t just empty because they were rugged and remote; they were empty because nobody really wanted to live there. These were the places on the earth that, well, sort of sucked. So I never put my finger on the glaciers of Greenland and said, “I will go there!” like Conrad’s Marlow. But I liked that they existed. Even on a map that showed every little Ajo, Arizona, there was still some mystery left somewhere.
My first atlas listed, in tiny columns of type under each map, the populations for thousands of cities and towns, and I would pore over these lists looking for comically under-populated places like Scotsguard, Saskatchewan (population: 3) or Hibberts Gore, Maine (population: 1). I dreamed of one day living in one of these glamorous spots — sure, it would be lonely, but think of the level of celebrity! The lone resident of Hibberts Gore, Maine, gets specifically mentioned in the world atlas! Well, almost.
The shapes of places were just as transporting for me as their names. Their outlines were full of personality: Alaska was a chubby profile smiling benevolently toward Siberia; Maine was a boxing glove. Thailand had a tail like a monkey. I admired roughly rectangular territories like Turkey and Portugal and Puerto Rico, which seemed sturdy and respectable to me, but not more precisely rectangular places like Colorado or Utah, whose geometric perfection made them false, uneasy additions to the national map. I immediately noticed when two areas had slightly similar outlines — Wisconsin and Tanzania, Lake Michigan and Sweden, the island of Lanai and South Carolina — and decided they must be geographic soulmates of some kind. To this day, I see British Columbia on a map and think of it as a more robust, muscular version of California, just as the Canadians there must be more robust, muscular versions of Californians.
These map shapes had a life of their own for me, divorced from their actual territories. Staring at a map for too long was like repeating a word over and over, until all meaning is stripped away. Uruguay ceased to represent an actual nation for me; it was just that shape, that slightly lopsided teardrop. I saw these outlines even after the atlas was closed, afterimages floating in my mind’s eye. The knotty pine paneling in my grandparents’ upstairs bedroom was full of loops and whorls that reminded me of faraway fjords and lagoons. A puddle in a parking lot was Lake Okeechobee, or the Black Sea. The first time I saw Mikhail Gorbachev on TV, I remember thinking immediately that his famous birthmark looked just like a map of the Philippines.
By the time I was ten, my beloved Hammond atlas was just one of a whole collection of atlases on my bedroom bookshelf. My parents called them my “atli,” though even at the time I was pretty sure that wasn’t the right plural. Road atlases, historical atlases, pocket atlases. I wish I could say that I surveyed my maps with the keen eye of a scientist, looking at watersheds and deforestation and population density, and saying smart-sounding things like “Aha, that must be a subduction zone.” But I don’t think I was that kind of map fan. I wasn’t aware of the ecology and geology and history manifest on maps, at first; I was just drawn to their scope, their teensy type, and their orderly gestalt. My dad liked maps too, but he preferred the black British atlas in the living room, a Philip’s one from the 1970s in which the maps were all “hypsometric.” Hypsometric maps are those ones that represent terrain with vivid colors: greens for low elevations, browns and purples for high ones. He liked being able to visualize the physical landforms being mapped, but I preferred the clean political maps that Hammond or National Geographic published, where cities and towns stood out neatly on lightly shaded territory, and borders were delineated in crisp pastels.
In fact, I still dislike hypsometric maps to this day. They look stodgy and old-fashioned to me, something you might see a matronly 1960s schoolteacher straining to pull down in front of a chalkboard. But it’s more than that. I have to admit that I still like maps for their order and detail as much as for what they can tell us about the real world. A good map isn’t just a useful representation of a place. It’s also a beautiful system in and of itself.< Main Maphead Page Chapter 4 Excerpt >