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Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonksby Ken Jennings
n.: the deformation
of an elliptical map projection
My wound is geography.
They say you're not really grown up until you've moved the last box of your stuff out of storage at your parents'. If that's true, I believe I will stay young forever, ageless and carefree as Dorian Gray, while the cardboard at my parents' house molders and fades. I know, everybody's parents' attic or basement has its share of junk, but the eight-foot-tall mountain of boxes filling one bay of my parents' garage isn't typical pack-rat clutter. It looks more like the warehouse in the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The last time I was home, I waded into the chaos in hopes of liberating a plastic bucket of my childhood Legos. I didn't find the Legos, much to my six-year-old son's chagrin, but I was surprised to come across a box with my name on the side, written in the neater handwriting of my teenaged self. The box was like an archaeological dig of my adolescence and childhood, starting with R.E.M. mix tapes and Spy magazines on top, moving downward through strata of Star Trek novelizations and Thor comics, and ending on the most primal bedrock of my youthful nerdiness: a copy of Hammond's Medallion World Atlas from 1979.
I wasn't expecting the Proustian thrill I experienced as I pulled the huge green book from the bottom of the box. Sunbeam-lit dust motes froze in their dance; an ethereal choir sang. At seven years old, I had saved up my allowance for months to buy this atlas, and it became my most prized possession. I remember it sometimes lived at the head of my bed at night next to my pillow, where most kids would keep a beloved security blanket or teddy bear. Flipping through its pages, I could see that my atlas had been as well loved as any favorite plush toy: the gold type on the padded cover was worn, the corners were dented, and the binding was so shot that most of South America had fallen out and been shoved back in upside down.
Today, I will still cheerfully cop to being a bit of a geography wonk. I know my state capitals--hey, I even know my Australian state capitals. The first thing I do in any hotel room is break out the tourist magazine with the crappy city map in it. My "bucket list" of secret travel ambitions isn't made up of boring places like Athens or Tahiti--I want to visit off-the-beaten-path oddities like Weirton, West Virginia (the only town in the United States that borders two different states on opposite sides) or Victoria Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut (home to the world's largest "triple island"--that is, the world's largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island).* But my childhood love of maps, I started to remember as I paged through the atlas, was something much more than this casual weirdness. I was consumed.
Back then, I could literally look at maps for hours. I was a fast and voracious reader, and keenly aware that a page of hot Roald Dahl or Encyclopedia Brown action would last me only thirty seconds or so. But each page of an atlas was an almost inexhaustible trove of names and shapes and places, and I relished that sense of depth, of comprehensiveness. Travelers will return to a favorite place many times and order the same dish at the same café and watch the sun set from the same vantage point. I could do the same thing as a frequent armchair traveler, enjoying the familiarity of sights I had noticed before while always being surprised by new details. Look how Ardmore, Alabama, is only a hundred feet away from its neighbor Ardmore, Louisiana--but there are 4,303 miles between Saint George, Alaska, and Saint George, South Carolina. Look at the lacelike coastline of the Musandam Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Arabian nation of Oman, an intricate fractal snowflake stretching into the Strait of Hormuz. Children love searching for tiny new details in a sea of complexity. It's the same principle that sold a bajillion Where's Waldo? books.
Mapmakers must know this--that detail, to many map lovers, is not just a means but an end. The office globe next to my desk right now is pretty compact, but it makes room for all kinds of backwater hamlets in the western United States: Cole, Kansas; Alpine, Texas; Burns, Oregon; Mott, North Dakota (population: 808, about the same as a city block or two of Manhattan's Upper East Side). Even Ajo, Arizona, makes the cut, and it's not even incorporated as a town--it's officially a CDP, or "census-designated place." What do all these spots have in common, besides the fact that no one has ever visited them without first running out of gas? First, they all have nice short names. Second, they're each the only thing for miles around. So they neatly fill up an empty spot on the globe and therefore make the product look denser with information.
But I also remember a competing instinct in my young mind: a love for the way maps could suggest adventure by hinting at the unexplored. Joseph Conrad wrote about this urge at the beginning of Heart of Darkness:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up I will go there."
When I was a "little chap," there were (and are) still a few mostly blank spaces on the map: Siberia, Antarctica, the Australian outback.* But I knew these lacunae weren't just empty because they were rugged and remote; they were empty because nobody really wanted to live there. These were the places on the Earth that, well, sort of sucked. So I never put my finger on the glaciers of Greenland and said, "I will go there!" like Conrad's Marlow. But I liked that they existed. Even on a map that showed every little Ajo, Arizona, there was still some mystery left somewhere.
And then there were those amazing place-names. My hours with maps featured lots of under-my-breath whispering: the names of African rivers ("Lualaba . . . Jumba . . . Limpopo . . . ") and Andean peaks ("Aconcagua . . . Yerupajá . . . Llullaillaco . . . ") and Texas counties ("Glasscock . . . Comanche . . . Deaf Smith . . . ") They were secret passwords to entry into other worlds--more magical, I'm sure, in many cases, than the places themselves. My first atlas listed, in tiny columns of type under each map, the populations for thousands of cities and towns, and I would pore over these lists looking for comically underpopulated places like Scotsguard, Saskatchewan (population: 3), or Hibberts Gore, Maine (population: 1).
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