On Maps: Directions to Everything

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

Maps are perfect wall-hangings. They are windows to the world, and different ways of seeing. Western-style maps often mean to depict the Earth in terms of available resources, but maps from other cultures might have primary roles as storytelling devices, or routes between destinations. Take, for example, the lashed-together stick maps of Pacific Islanders: paper-free charts used by navigators for reaching islands on the basis of wave pattern and swell direction, felt through in the hull of a dugout canoe. Maps are more than 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 free official map — not suited for backcountry, but great for most other uses — as a hiking guide. Later, on New Caledonia’s Isle of Pines, I walked across the small island using a basic visitor’s map, climbing a dead volcano along the way, Pic Ngâ, and hitching a ride more than once with the island’s generous Melanesian inhabitants. The following year I used a half-broken iPhone 3G’s map to pick my way by bicycle across central Spain and coastal Portugal, only activating its blue GPS dot when I couldn’t orient myself any other way, and I did the same with another hand-me-down phone’s onboard map while hitchhiking in Honduras some time afterward. Last fall, I used a four-euro folding pocket map to bike across the island of Cyprus, west of Syria.

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 this 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 explorers, peoples, and people. 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 just look at these things! They speak of Native Americans, Spanish settlers, 19th-century American thinkers, early New England colonists, and 17th-century French explorers. How nice for us that they should exist on a map today!


Maps tell us how a patch of Earth is shaped. They are a memory of the landscape. Topographic lines 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-settled places like New England and Appalachia. This is even more extreme in the Old World.


Maps lead me to myself. Perhaps I am not alone in this. When I look at maps of the places I’ve been, I might remember formative experiences from paths once taken. I run my eyes along roads and trails and stop to recollect, point by point, the map becoming 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 the stippled line of the Casa Grande trail at Big Bend, I recall botanizing the desert scrub in a notebook, writing the names and drawing the rough likenesses of sotol, yucca, agave and alligator juniper, in conscious emulation of the habits of famous naturalists from centuries past. I remember doing the same on the Angel’s Landing trail at Zion, and feeling added 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 reminds me of first getting caught in a desert monsoon there, the heaviest rainfall I’d ever seen, not falling in sheets so much as hundreds of flapping weighted 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 torn jean shorts and Horus eyes from California, via Bohemia apparently, who called herself “Kafka”. This was a striking moment of connection to the people in my presence, and the power of something as fundamental as the weather.

Memories like these push me into states of chest-thumping earnestness that might hit the reader as a little too feelsy, but their value is that they most remind me of what I value as — well, as a human being. And they float up when I look at maps.


Apart from any soft reasons for appreciating maps, they’ll get you through difficult backcountry hikes — or to that unexpected roadside convenience store, for a refrigerated egg-salad sandwich and bottled black tea. (Something about trail hunger drives me to egg salad.) They are the reason you survive in otherwise unfamiliar territory. You orient with them; you reach points of utility or beauty with them. Maps facilitate your interaction 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. In a sense, 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.




Traveler, writer, cook.

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A. B. Thompson

A. B. Thompson

Traveler, writer, cook.

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