Mappa Mundi

  Jerome Shea       June 1, 2010      Weekend Wonk

“Map” is a strange word. Broad-voweled but abrupt, it rhymes with yap, zap, slap, clap, and so on. It might be an acronym (Mercator Area Projection?) or the call of an ill-tempered tropical bird (“That infernal mapping kept us awake all night!”). In fact, it comes from the medieval Latin mappa, meaning a napkin, a cloth. Mappa Mundi means map of the world.

To put something on the map is to make it famous; to wipe it off the map is to obliterate it. Anything with physical features can be mapped. You can map the heavens. You can map the ocean floor. You can map your lover’s body. Maps rule.

For many of us, the romance of maps began with the pirate’s treasure map: “X marks the spot,” and all that. We probably did bury stuff in the back yard or, better, in the woods next door, then drew an elaborate map with appropriately ragged edges. “Thirteen paces due west from the big twisted tree with the secret sign carved in it….” Or we drew imagined treasure maps. Always on a desert isle, and the seeker had to skirt the monster’s cave, rappel down a sheer cliff, swim a raging river, and so forth. Half the fun was in embellishing those maps with spouting whales, mermaids, and all the rest. What started out as a route to buried riches became a child’s work of art. I remember spending whole summer days lost in my map-making until the map itself became the treasure, a wonderful bit of alchemy.

Roads likely started out as game trails and became more packed down as native hunters followed those trails. Here in the States, settlers in wagons followed, turning the trails into rutted roads that were often quagmires. Then came the imperious automobile. The dicey roads got paved, gas-stationed, and motelled (or perhaps “motor courted,” a lovely seductive phrase). Our classic American east-west routes—US 20, US 30, US 40—all originated that way. Daniel Boone strode west through the shadowy forest and then in a trice, historically speaking, came a family in its ’34 Ford, the kids wailing, “Are we THERE yet?”

From a city map I have highlighted the ditch trails that run all through our North Valley (see “Water in the Ditch”). I have mapped the bosque trails and, with help from a friend with a GPS, I have assigned accurate mileages to each leg. The bosque trails originated, we think, when people ran cattle in there years ago. The cattle are gone but the trails keep changing anyway. A cottonwood falls in a windstorm so runners have to go around it. After a couple of months you don’t even remember the original piece of the trail. The trail heals itself, as it were, and renews itself.

That Kentucky map I mentioned in the last wonk has an exploded inset for “Bluegrass Country” with all the big horse farms noted. I have a roadmap of “Indian Country,” that big chunk that includes mostly Arizona, but also parts of New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Specialty maps abound, a map for every purpose under Heaven (which, unlike the heavens, has not been mapped yet as far as we know.)

I can look at a map and the memories come flooding back. Sitgreaves Pass on old 66 in Arizona. Skinny road like an arthritic snake, sheer drops, no guardrails, and the rising sun making you functionally blind. Wonderful! Framed in my study is a map of Florence (see “A Grouch Abroad”) that rode in my back pocket for a sweltering week. It is worn through at the four-fold point, which happens to be exactly at the Duomo. I still have the European roadmaps that I used a half century ago and can pinpoint where my old Vespa seized up on a rainy Sunday morning in Belgium and sent me skidding. And there is the spot along the French coast where I had that espresso, just me and the sleepy counter man, on a March morning that sparkled, like the Mediterranean, with all my life’s promise.

Last wonk, I asked which is more important, the journey or the destination. I suggested that you can have it both ways, and I still believe that. Surely to toggle between the one and the other is no great feat. But if I really had to choose? Well, I am looking at a map right now (I won’t tell you where, but I’ll be off soon) and I can imagine every little town, every chintzy motel (singles $24.95, weekly rates available), every indulgent greasy breakfast, every stop to keep my coffee cup filled, every patch of fog, every dip and rise and twist…and the Little Red Beast laughing with me all the way. And I think not of the White Rabbit but of another character in another children’s book:

Mr. Toad.

And the open road.

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