Why I Love Maps

When I was a kid, my family took a lot of car trips. While Mom and Dad squabbled in the front about routes, exits and detours, my brother and I had our own road map to consult. With the wide, unwieldy paper crackling between us, we could follow along the planned trip or search out other possibilities.

And that is why I love maps. Possibilities.

My family believed everyone should know the world, so my bookshelf always held my own school-type atlas. Like a wondering giant, I would lay the book on my desk and slowly, page by page, peer at the landforms, roads and especially the towns and cities – a hundred thousand in this circle…two million in this double circle…less than five hundred in this dot, all connected by black, red, or broken lines.

So many places to go. So many people I had never met. So many busy lives being lived.

So many possibilities.

As a lonely kid, I used to imagine that in that school or at that park, my best friend in the world waited. In the hundreds of thousands of schools contained within those circles, there might be one kid in each who would want to be my friend. For a kid struggling not to be forgotten by the gang, the potential for friends was dizzyingly wonderful. And I knew I could some day go there and find them.

I just had to follow the map.

Later when boys entered my ken, I would stare at the city circles and wonder about the thousands upon thousands of boys. Cute boys…or thoughtful boys…or baseball playing boys…or…

Possibilities. Oh my.

The man I did meet lived his childhood in one of those dots about an inch and a half from my double circle. Our life roads converged against all mathematical probability (there are so many people) at a third circle four inches away. And miracle of miracles, he loved maps too.

Together we poured over routes and destinations with plans to go here or there, see this or that. While we sat in his dorm room one evening, I remember clearly him pointing to Seattle where no one we knew had lived or visited, and saying he would like to live there one day. I’ve occasionally wondered if it was part of his destiny map because Seattle was his final stopping place.

The kind of paper maps that you can open on a table seem to be passé. Most people just call up a route on their phones. Easy. Direct. Practical. Devoid of dreams. No one lingers over the digital dots and winding lines. Take this turn, go 4.6 miles and your destination is on the left. Estimated time with current traffic, 19 minutes.

And there you are, with no distractions or surprising detours to get in your way.

Sometimes I think our conveniences and entertainments actually rob us of dreams. Not because they aren’t the product of imagination (which we totally need to share) but because they make it unnecessary for us to add in our own half-formed perceptions. With every route, plot, or information meme expertly laid before us, it is usually unnecessary to experience the unexpected, whether it is terrifying or joyous or both.

But there are still us hold-outs. The ones with atlases on the shelves and paper maps stuffed in the glove compartments. My middle daughter’s husband also loves maps – he collects antique ones to decorate their house. And my two grandsons had atlases before they could read. No one is too young to start on dreams and possibilities.

I so love maps – they are such a grand metaphor for life.