Maps

 

(This 1087th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 22, 2012.)

 

Cabin fever is for other people. Of course some of these days are short and often dreary, of course wind-blown snow and sleet sometimes makes even venturing outside painful. But who cares? Those are just the days when I have time to myself, when I can curl up in a chair, blanket over my legs and around my shoulders, to read for an hour or two.

 

I certainly enjoy reading mysteries, especially those of Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin and Rex Stout. And I enjoy reading "popular" (aka easy going) math and science books like those of Ian Stewart, John Allen Paulos and Martin Gardner.

 

But most of all, I enjoy simply looking at maps. I can spend a half hour studying the AAA map, New York State: Western Region, not with any special purpose and certainly not to impress anyone with my knowledge. I can't: I may learn where the village of Ceres is, but I will forget where it is five minutes later.

 

But a single map is just a start. Atlases are what I love most. Atlases have a kind of heft that individual maps lack. One of mine, The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book has page after page showing exactly the same HOMES lakes, but each map provides different information: about land use, fisheries, waterborne commerce, recreation, and industries.

 

A different kind of atlas is The Civil War: The West Point Atlas of War. As I reread the first volume of U.S. Grant's autobiography, I followed his battles with it.

 

But my real prize is my Oxford Atlas of the World, which contains enough information to satisfy me for the remainder of my life. Everything about this book reeks of quality: its paper, its type fonts, its colors. No book of this size, printed in such detail can be free of errors, but I trust what I find in it implicitly. My recent edition now has satellite maps as well, maps that provide remarkable detail yet at the same time show the earth's curvature in the distance.

 

It is an easy claim that computer software, and in particular Google Earth, provides all this as well. I like that program very much but in no way does it measure up for me to my Oxford Atlas.

 

As it happens, I know the genesis of my love for maps. It started in fourth grade. Our classroom had a handsome large jigsaw puzzle with the states as pieces. We timed each other to see who could complete it fastest. In doing so we gained a kinesthetic feel for the states: the size of Texas, the odd shape of Idaho and Maryland (which soon lost its arm), the tiny states along our northeastern coast.

 

What brought all this into focus for me was a book called to my attention by Malcolm Nelson of the College at Fredonia. Mac is another map enthusiast: I've written before about his delightful book about one of our nation's highways, Twenty West.

 

The book he recommended is Maphead by Ken Jennings. Jennings is without a doubt our nation's most famous nerd: he's the guy who won at Jeopardy for so many months. I didn't consider that a great background for an author, but I soon found that I was wrong. This is an excellent book.

 

There is almost everything in Jennings' book about maps and mapping that you can think of. From the remarkably similar shapes of Wisconsin and Tanzania to the geocaches in your immediate neighborhood. And there are thousands of great stories here: like  the famous response by South Carolina's Caite Upton in the Teen USA contest when asked why a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map. (If you don't have the book, you can also find her answer on YouTube.)

 

But my favorite chapter, titled "Meanders", is about listers. How many countries have you visited? (The Travelers' Century Club lists 319; my personal count is 12.) How many nation, state or county high points have you climbed to? Interestingly, although he does mention the Four Corners Monument, where four states meet, Jennings doesn't mention listing points where three states meet like the NY-PA-NJ point, the hobby of my esteemed friend, Jack Baker.-- Gerry Rising