Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mapheads on State Line Road

Tom gave me for Christmas Ken Jennings' new book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. Ken Jennings is the guy who ruled on Jeopardy for six months, the unbeatable trivial master. He has been a map wonk since childhood. I've been a map wonk since childhood. Tom has been a map wonk since childhood. Tom knew I'd like the book.

I wrote here recently about Treasure Island, the first real book I ever read. The map of the island stands out in my memory as an epiphany. Maps were invitations to other worlds, real and imagined.

I once also blogged here about the 4x8-foot topographical relief map I made for our budding family when I was in graduate school, and which son Dan restored not so many years ago. For years it hung in the dining room, and the kids grew up with map quizzes. Tom shared some of his childhood map experiences with Jennings, and the map made it onto Jennings' blog (scroll down). Thus, do map wonks communicate.

A cabinet in our living room was filled with maps, a teeming geographic jumble. Of course we subscribed to National Geographic, even when we had no money, and hoarded the maps that came with the mags. Also, hundreds of gas station maps from all over the country. Remember those? A map was almost as good as being there.

At the college where I worked, I collected maps on an even grander (and more expensive) scale. Marvelous huge geological maps from the Geological Survey, which I used in my course The Earth. Marie Tharp's brilliant map of the world's ocean floors, which I empoyed so much in the classroom it ended up being more repair tape than paper. And dozens of the plastic relief maps of the produced by the army mapping service and sold commercially by Hubbard. In class, we'd push back the desks and lay these out on the floor mosaic-wise, the eastern or western United States taking up most of the room. God, I loved those maps. It was like being an astronaut.

I could go on and on. My pilgrimages to Stanfords in London, the best map store on Earth. The Middle-earth maps that attracted me to Tolkien before almost anyone else in the States had heard of him. Being unable to read Watership Down without acquiring the relevant sheet from the UK Ordnance Survey (yes, there is a real Watership Down). Walking the Ridgeway on maps decades before I was able to do it in the flesh with Dan and Tom.

Enough, enough. And now we have Google Earth, which Tom and I use almost daily to tease our wonkishness back and forth.* Maybe the reason I don't believe in an afterlife is because I've never seen a map.

*(For example, I queried Tom: How many states can you DIRECTLY enter by moving due south from Tennessee? He correctly answered eight. You have to be something of a map wonk to include Virginia. He responded by asking: From what other state can you do the same thing? I leave this as an exercise for the reader.)