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For the Love of Maps

It is one of the most prevalent misperceptions that the purpose of maps is to show you how to get from one place to another. They do serve that purpose, of course. But more importantly, they seduce you into exploring places about which you'd otherwise never have known.

I can understand the lure of GPS units: I use them too, navigating and learning the streets of big cities. And it's tempting to have a battery-operated unit in your hiking backpack that shows you your location in the mountains with a reassuring precision (assuming your unit has batteries, and your bag hasn't fallen into a river, and ...). But when it comes to coaxing you away from home and into new adventure, I find GPS units fail roundly. Just gaze at a big map you've posted on your wall some cloudy morning while you drink your coffee, and see if your boots don't start tapping.

It was early fall of 1989, and recently arrived in Ithaca, New York, I found myself perusing book stores downtown. There on the wall was a series of topo maps outlining the route of the Fingerlakes Trail. I'd never heard about it, but before long I had walked out with a bagged set, and a pocket trail guide laying out the landmarks and distances. I then spent the next four years hiking, as one wall of my living space slowly accumulated a grid of USGS topographic maps, each one leading me farther afield to hidden fishing ponds, neglected trails, and irreplicable natural beauty: in a word, peace. To say my world – and my life – changed would be to understate it.

Look at the image accompanying this piece (click on it for a larger version). Your eyes naturally pick up the contours, you are drawn into the valleys, swoop along the canyon walls, your muddy boots traverse the swampy lowlands, kicking through the summer grass, climbing up toward summits with unimaginable vistas, crowned by radio towers or fire roads or farms. The lines give you just a sense, and the beguiling part is: to do any better, you've got to lace up your boots, put a sandwich or two in your backpack, and plan to start walking. It's magic.

After over twenty years of accumulating books and notes and papers and maps and journals, I came to the point where I had to trim down. Some stuff I parted with gladly, some things I was able to convert to scanned digital versions and shed the weight of the physical versions. But when it came to the maps, I paused. Maps belong on your wall, where they do what maps do best: they instruct, they explain, but most of all: they beckon you into new adventures.


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