The fanciful map you see here, showing the route we followed, was created by Laura Hartman Maestro and will appear in the print and e-book editions of The Longest Road.
I love maps in all their forms: road maps, road atlases, topographic maps, marine charts. A map is the graphic representation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”:
“You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that
I believe that much unseen is also here.”
A map calls you to leave the known for the unknown. It is a song in itself, promising new landscapes, new people, new experiences, and, if the traveler has a mind as open as the road before him, new insights.
My love affair with maps began a long time ago. An excerpt from The Longest Road:
“I remember an old world atlas that had belonged to my father in high school; it dated from the thirties, when some parts of the planet still appeared as white spots on the map. Oh, how I loved to stare at them and wonder, What’s there? Even in my own youth, a few places, like the depths of the Brazilian Amazon or the interior of New Guinea, remained as uncharted as Mars.”
I go on to note that today much of Mars has been mapped. As for our own planet, every square mile has been surveyed by satellite technology. There are no enticing blank spots left anywhere.
Which leads me, readers, to this observation: The benign tyranny of electronic navigation can turn an adventure into a mediocre experience, like a trip to the mall.
The risk of getting lost
If a journey is to have even an element of adventure, it also must have an element of the unknown and the unexpected. It should carry the risk of getting lost. The advent of the GPS and digitized cartography—i.e., Google Maps—have all but eliminated uncertainty from modern travel and replaced it with boring predictability.
We carried a hand-held GPS (a Garmin E-Trex) on the trip, as well as an Android smart-phone that, when in its GPS mode, could take us down any highway or street in America and deliver us to exact spot we wanted to reach. “Magic Droid,” as we called it, was a marvelous device, but its precision was depressing because it banished the anxiety of doubt.
Navigating with a map and compass, or with a sextant, or (most primitive of all), by the sun, stars, and terrain features, requires skill and practice. Even so, a lot of guesswork is involved, and that brings on a tingling tension, so when you arrive at your destination, you feel both relieved and gratified because your own brain and abilities, mixed with a little luck, are what got you there.
To maintain that frisson, I often artificially made things difficult. I would turn my GPS off and stash it in some hard to reach place, thus forcing myself to turn to my first love—the paper map—and then to figure out where I was and how to get where I was bound, without some gizmo doing it all for me. And when the message “No service” appeared on Magic Droid’s screen, I was thrilled.
What do you think of all this? Are you a traveler who must know exactly where you’re going and how to get there? Or do you delight in chance and uncertainty?
Category: The Longest Road
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