Maps and Me: A Personal Essay

I can’t remember the first time I ever saw a map, but I’ve always been transfixed by them. As a child, I studied highway maps on long car trips until I got sick, which unfortunately was never long. When I went to summer camp, I mapped the entire property — tramping around each trail, giving them my own idiosyncratic names, and taking my best shot at the surrounding topography. At my grandparents’ cottage, I hammered paper road signs into trees and made imaginary highways through the poplar bush; the signs disintegrated immediately, and my grandfather was pulling nails out of the trees for the rest of the summer.

Official highway maps were my bread and butter: we were a family that vacationed by road, so we always had them. Canadian provinces have tourist offices at each border; I insisted that we stop to pick up the newest map, which at the time were always free. Or city maps from the CAA: I must have memorized the entire freeway network of Montreal by the time I was 13, which is impressive when you consider that I lived in Winnipeg.

Highway maps were also my raw material. Some of you will be horrified to hear that as a child, what I did with old highway maps was update them — with pencil crayon. This highway had been paved? I filled it in. A new highway over here? I updated it. Then I got bored: while waiting in the hospital for eye surgery, I took an old Manitoba provincial highway map and drew a freeway along the sparsely populated, muskeg-filled, eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg.

Map making became a creative activity. It wasn’t enough to invent a faraway place; I had to give it a freeway network. Reams of used computer paper, brought home by my father from work, became a road atlas of an imaginary country where cities had names like “Oot” and “Schmenge” (yes, Schmenge) and freeways were always numbered in the 90s. Then, after I had read too much Tolkien, came mountain ranges, forests and rivers, all named in my own made-up language. I didn’t invent stories; I created geographies.

Historical atlases were another dangerous influence: we had one in our house, and the changing boundaries of European countries over a thousand years held me rapt. Two history degrees later, I suspect that this may have been what started it all.

One possible explanation for my fascination with maps is that they may have been a form of security. I’ve always felt lost without a map. I always try to make sure I have a map of a place before I travel there. In the summer of 1997, I bought maps in Paris for Lille and Lyon before day trips there; that same summer, a trip to Munich went badly — in part, I think, because I didn’t have a map to ground me. I never hike without a good topo map, even where trails are clearly marked and heavily travelled. Maps are my security blanket.

Paradoxically, when I was older, I didn’t do anything with maps beyond using them: I didn’t even so much as take a single geography course at university. Maps were a means to an end: an essential visual aid when I was reading an historical monograph, for example. But nothing more. As a result, I ended up missing out on a lot of interesting stuff: roadgeeking, geocaching, collecting.

My first real exposure to map collecting was actually through Miles Harvey’s Island of Lost Maps, which I read shortly before I started The Map Room. That, perhaps, may have whetted my appetite.

By early 2003, I was looking for a map blog. By that point every subject, every obsession, had its own blog, and I’d read a few of them for other subjects; I was hoping to find something on maps that I could read and enjoy. I couldn’t find any. So I decided to start my own. I finessed the fact that I was enthusiastic but essentially uninformed by calling it an exercise in self-education: I would look around the web, and post my findings; readers could follow along and learn things with me. That was my plan. It seems to have worked out, except for the fact that it is by now abundantly clear that my readers know much more than I do.

I still don’t know very much about maps; but, like any proper undergraduate education, I now know just how much I don’t know. And now, two years later, I’m quite aware of just how over my head I am. And the subject isn’t quite the same as it once was. GIS has entered the realm of the amateur hacker; geotagging and map hacking have become big trends. There are blogs out there by people who actually know what they’re talking about. Keeping track of it — to say nothing of understanding it — is more of a challenge than it ever was before.

Two years later, and I still don’t know a damn thing.