Right now, sitting in my armchair, I’m imagining myself at the Camilla House bed and breakfast in Penzance, listening to Fiona, the charming proprietor, as she tells me about her favorite local restaurants and pubs. How can I be two places at once? I’m recalling my visit to Cornwall three years ago by looking at my Ordnance Survey Motoring Atlas of Britain.
I love maps, especially road maps. Studying a map, I can see where I am, where I’m going, or where I’ve been. In my imagination, I convert its two dimensions into three, and it’s almost like I’m there. These days, maps are pretty much the only way I can travel. I’ve been armchair traveling quite a lot, revisiting my favorite places and imagining trips I want to take when I’m able to travel again.
My love of maps stems from my neurotic need to know where I am at all times. If I’m plopped down in a strange place, I need to know how that spot relates to what surrounds it, to know “the lay of the land.” If I have no idea of where I am or which way I need to go, I panic.
Preparing to travel, I pore over maps, plotting my course, memorizing the route and landmarks along the way. Paper maps give me the directions—“north on this street for three blocks, then right on that street for two blocks . . .”—and online maps like Google Earth give me a sense of what I’ll see along the way—“there’s a statue on the corner where I’m to turn right.” If I can memorize the key points, then I can just start off without looking at the map again, without looking like a tourist, and that makes me feel more secure. I want to seem to know where I’m going, at least. If someone stops me and asks directions, I know I’ve succeeded.
Don’t get me wrong, GPS is a great asset, but I like to have the entire route in my head rather than go turn by turn, and often I prefer a different route to the GPS’s insistence on the shortest or quickest way. I’ve had many arguments with my GPS; they usually end with me going the way I want to, imagining her standing, huffy, with hands on hips: “reCALculating . . .”
GPS isn’t perfect—think of all the stories of people blindly following GPS directions as thy drive into a lake or the wrong way down a one-way street. Once, I was sitting at the North Rim Lodge of the Grand Canyon when a couple pulled up. They’d followed their GPS directions. They had reservations, they said, but the clerk pointed out that their reservations were for the South Rim. The South Rim was maybe 10 miles by mule trail but 210 miles by car.
GPS can get lost, too. In Penzance, I used Google Maps directions and got to a point where Maps knew where I was (blue dot) and where I was going (red pinpoint), about two blocks away, but couldn’t figure out how to get me there: “No directions found,” it said. I was on my own.
I love planning trips, but it’s almost as much fun to go back over trips I’ve taken. In my mind’s eye, and with the help of my travel journal (if I’ve kept one), I convert the two-dimensional map route into my actual experience. As I find the places I’ve been, I remember the physical world that corresponds to the points on the map, and I can relive my experience. Even if I’m reading about a place I’ve never been, I find that if I look it up on a map it seems more real.
In these times of plague, since I can’t go anywhere, I’ve been reliving some of my favorite trips using the maps I’ve collected over the years. I was smart enough to highlight in my British atlas the routes I took when touring Scotland, Ireland, and England—and I have journals from those trips as well. I wasn’t so thorough on a trip to most of the National Parks in Utah back in 2008, but I can still retrace the route (I remember about ninety percent of it and can extrapolate the rest) and remember the astounding natural beauty I experienced on that trip as I “stepped down” the Grand Staircase from Cedar Breaks to Bryce to Zion to the Grand Canyon.
Someday I’d like to drive through the Alps. I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen them in movie scenes and TV shows. Looking at the Michelin maps of those places, I imagine the twisty Alpine roads in Switzerland and northern Italy and the fun I’ll have driving them, the breathtaking mountain vistas and the serene awe I’ll feel seeing them.
In the meantime, I’m traveling through the pages of the maps I’ve collected. Even though I have to practice “social distancing,” with these maps I can escape the confines of my little cabin in the woods of Virginia.
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