Jerome Shea       May 26, 2010      Weekend Wonk

I love maps. I don’t even have to leave my recliner to haul up my eight pound world atlas (oof!) or my USA/Canada/Mexico road atlas. Should I see some place mentioned in the morning paper—Storm Lake, Iowa, say—I will grab the road atlas and have a looksee. Just to see, and maybe imagine my being there, imagine the Hawkeyes who live there, imagine what the campus of Buena Vista University looks like and wonder how a town of 9973 (in 2006) can support a university. And wonder why in the world a school in Iowa would be named “Buena Vista.” I might not get back to the Albuquerque Journal at all that morning.

Maps. Think of those maps one finds in old, old books; I mean the ones with the cherubim’s cheeks puffed out to represent each of the Four Winds. Those rococo maps look silly to us now. They are usually far off the mark, and the best part are those terra incognita spaces warning “Here be dragons!” Ooooo! Still, they are testimony to our need to find things out, to explore the unexplored, to map the world however crudely. We should not be smug with our satellites and global positioning devices. Accuracy gained but mystery, enchantment, lost. There is a reason why those old maps often fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Maps are guides, of course. They try their best to get us from here to there, which is why to be “all over the map” is to be in a kind of indecisive paralysis. This summer I will be visiting my friend Judy in Kentucky one evening. She can email me directions: “look for the junked old truck and turn right about a hundred yards farther on; then I’m the third driveway on the left.” Or she can provide me with a map (or, these days, I can Google up a map myself). I always go for the map. I crave pictures (maybe “diagrams” is a better word), not words. A couple of weeks ago I sprung for a more detailed roadmap of Kentucky instead of relying on the smaller map in my road atlas. It was as if a microscope adjustment had brought everything into focus. Now I see just the route I want to take, and it is not the one I previously had in mind. I stare at that loopy line and imagine myself now on a muggy summer evening, tooling through the bluegrass greenery on that twisty old road, wondering what is beyond each bend, over each rise.

And maps give choices. Some years ago, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, his first book, rocketed up the bestseller list. The title comes from the fact that on roadmaps way back—before interstates, children!—primary routes were printed in red, secondary routes in blue. Least Heat Moon decided to take only blue highways around this land of ours. The book has become a minor classic, for one thing because Least Heat Moon is a first class writer (a poet, really) and for another because something in all of us wants to get off the interstates or even the proto-interstates. Get off the red and mosey along on the blue, pilgrim.

More people, more towns, more roads, more choices. A look at a roadmap of the whole USA will show this starkly. The East is swarming with roads, with choices. If you can’t get there from here in New Jersey, it’s not the fault of the highway department. The Midwest continues to hold its own. But then you get to the West and you realize what we mean by wide open spaces: darned few roads. One of the disappointments of the West is that for all practical purposes you often can get there from here only on endless, shimmering interstates, cruise control heaven. You have to get to California before you have more choices again (and, ironically, even more interstates and expressways).

Maps are only terrestrial. By that I mean the crashingly obvious point that there are no roads in the ocean (“whale paths” notwithstanding) or in the air. There are routes, I guess, routes determined by compass bearings and more sophisticated methods that are beyond me. But only dry land lets us put our imprint on it. There is another side to that coin, I suppose. At sea, as long as I keep an eye out for icebergs and shoals and whatnot, I can pretty much steer whatever course I want, even as my “road” closes up behind me. On the other hand, maybe if I had the world’s most formidable tank I could go from here to El Paso by dead reckoning, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. Roads call the tune. They give us freedom but it’s a restricted freedom even if we seldom realize it.

Should one savor the journey or the destination? That old trope has been kicking about for years. I think one is supposed to plump for the journey and all its attendant virtues: take your time, smell the roses, don’t be like that crazy, destination-obsessed white rabbit. I suppose that is true if you really are traveling aimlessly, something we should all do at least once. But a road map can be like a treasure map, too. Oh, you don’t have to dig around to find South Laguna. It’s there in plain sight, just north of Dana Point. But South Laguna is where our old friends Bob and Brenda are waiting for us. They’re the treasure. It’s all one and all good as far as I’m concerned.

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