On Maps: Directions to Everything

5 min readMay 28, 2021


The nature writer and memoirist, Ellen Meloy, once wrote that a map “organizes wonder.” Maps are memories. They link us to the past, the landscape, and ourselves. They’re also preparation, used to get us where we’re going, and at their most dramatic are the difference between life and death.

Maps are perfect wall-hangings: they’re windows to the world, and different ways of seeing. Western-style maps often mean to depict the Earth in terms of available resources, from minerals to political borders to safe harbors, but maps from other cultures might have primary roles as storytelling devices or routes between destinations. Take the lashed-together stick maps of Pacific Islanders, for example: these were paperless charts, often no more than pieces of wood roped into a kind of grid, used by navigators for reaching islands on the basis of wave patterns and swell direction. Some of these markers were visible from the ocean surface, but some were so subtle that they could only be felt through the hull of the navigators’ dugout canoes. Throughout history, maps have been more than mere flat surfaces. They contain multitudes.

I once used a huge spiral-bound road atlas to find my way across the U.S. National Park System. At each park, I used the official map, not suited for backcountry but great for most other uses, as a hiking guide. Some time later, while traveling in the Pacific on New Caledonia’s Isle of Pines, I walked across the small island using nothing more than a basic visitor’s map, even climbing a dead volcano along the way and hitching a ride more than once with the island’s generous Melanesian inhabitants. The following year I used a half-broken third-generation iPhone’s map — GPS location usually switched off, to do it the old-fashioned way — to travel by bicycle across central Spain and coastal Portugal, and I did the same with another hand-me-down phone’s onboard map while hitchhiking in Honduras some time afterward. In fall 2020, I used a four-euro folding pocket map to bike across the island of Cyprus, south of Turkey.

I don’t pore over technical slices of minute squares of the countryside — I’m no tracker or wildland camper, and it’s guaranteed that there are better wayfinders in the pages of any outdoor magazine— but I’ve got experience with maps, and maps have given me experiences. As a hiker, hitchhiker and bikepacker, I’ve made good use of them over the years, and as an enthusiast I’ve never tired of looking at them, thinking about them, and drawing them. Foldable or digital, below are some thoughts I’ve had on our world-orienting friends.


In the names they use, and even in the lines that give them form, maps link us to the past: the presence of people who came before. Taking three popular U.S. National Parks at random, official maps for Big Bend National Park, in Texas, Yosemite National Park, in California, and Acadia National Park, in Maine, bear respectively (among many others) the following appellations: Chisos Mountains, Rosillo Peak, Terlingua (a ghost town); Tuolumne Meadows, Tioga Road, Olmsted Point (a drive-up overlook); Penobscot Mountain, Blackwoods Campground, Sieur de Monts (a spring). Getting sentimental about placenames is a topic for another time, but these things certainly warrant more than a passing glance! The names speak of Native Americans (Tuolumne, Tioga, Penobscot), Spanish settlers (Chisos, Rosillo, Terlingua), 19th-century American thinkers (Frederick Law Olmsted), early New England colonists (Blackwoods), and 17th-century French explorers (Sieur de Monts). How nice for us that such picturesque echoes of the past should be preserved for us today on modern maps!


Maps tell us how a patch of Earth is shaped, and are a memory of the landscape. The lines on topographic maps tell of rises and depressions in the countryside; feature markers indicate the presence of creeks and hills, overnight huts and lookout towers. In places subject to change, old maps are a record of things that may no longer exist. In North America, whole hilltops have been known to disappear in long-European-settled places like New England and Appalachia. The phenomenon is even more pronounced in much of the Old World.


Sometimes, maps have an inward function: they can lead us to ourselves. When I look at maps of the places I’ve been, I remember formative experiences on the old trails and highways I’ve taken. The lines of roads and walking paths on the map of a familiar place encourage me to stop and recollect, point by point, and the object becomes a sort of physical memory palace.

Travels in the American Southwest from very early in life gave me a sense that my character was rooted in the region, and I’ve felt this particularly intensely at times on trails in Big Bend National Park, say, or in the parks of Zion or Saguaro. Looking at a map of Big Bend, the stippled line of the Casa Grande trail recalls to mind how I once botanized the desert scrub with a notebook on it, writing the names and drawing the rough likenesses of sotol, yucca, agave and alligator juniper, in emulation of the habits of famous naturalists from centuries past. The map of Zion National Park reminds me of doing the same on the Angel’s Landing trail, and feeling even greater connection to the natural world on that rose-tinted afternoon when I met a small group of brown bighorn sheep fading up the same smooth sandstone wash I was headed up.

Seeing a drive-up trailhead on the map for Saguaro National Park reminds me of the first time I was ever caught in a desert monsoon there, the heaviest rainfall I’d ever seen that fell not in sheets so much as hundreds of flapping stage curtains, with a bone-thin, recovered French heroin addict who moved like Jack Sparrow (and managed to get cholla cactus stuck in his hand for his wavery gesticulations) and a peroxide-blonde hippie with Horus eyes and torn jean shorts from California who called herself “Kafka”. The map reminds me of this striking moment of connection to the people in my presence, and the power of something as fundamental as the weather.

In their own way, maps remind me of what I value most as a human being.


Apart from any emotional reasons for appreciating maps, they help us get around: through difficult backcountry hikes, or even just to that unexpected roadside convenience store, for an egg-salad sandwich and bottled black tea. (Something about trail hunger drives me to egg salad — I’ve never been able to adequately explain this.) Maps keep you alive in otherwise unfamiliar territory. You orient with them; you reach points of utility, or beauty, with them. Maps facilitate our interactions with nature.


I’ll always love maps for what they offer in the way of form and function. They please the eye, and lead us to nice things; they describe the land and mark the passage of humans; they keep us out of trouble and remind us of good times. Maps give directions to everything.

In the dream-like modern classic Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky wrote, “Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day. There is no more poetic book in the world.” Maybe she was right.