In praise of maps/Out There

Days like this, it’s nice to have maps. It is Sunday morning, May 12. The wind is howling outside, temperatures in the low 30s under a gray sky. There is fresh snow on the ground.

On this kind of morning, the best possible thing to do is to sit down at the kitchen table with a plate of buckwheat pancakes, a cup of hot coffee and a good map.

Maps, printed on paper, have a refreshingly tactile reality in a time when we increasingly rely on satellites and digital technology for purposes of navigation.

Global Positioning Systems have their place. But a GPS tends to favor interstate freeways, ignoring what William Least Heat Moon termed the “Blue Highways,” let alone the scenic county roads. A GPS tends to corral the traveller on the most direct path to a destination, neglecting other possible routes.

A map shows the land all at once, shows the spatial relationship between places: the place of origin, the intended destination, other possible destinations in between. It is possible a GPS can provide a more holistic view of the land on the smaller scale of hiking or mountain bike trails, but I’ve never tried to use one in the woods.

I have always been a lover of maps. When I was younger, I wore out the spine of my paperback copy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit flipping back to the hand drawn map at the beginning of the book, tracing Bilbo’s path to the Lonely Mountain.

More recently, I was admiring the aesthetic virtues of a Goode’s World Atlas: muted pastel pinks, grays and blues showing the height of the land and the depth of the ocean; gray shadows describing the shapes of mountains. I tried to imagine what it would have been like walking from Novi Sad to Belgrade along the banks of the Drava River in Yugoslavia. It was an old atlas.

The map I have unfolded on the kitchen table this morning offers a more realistic escapism. It is a map of the North Country Trail from Cascade Falls to Ironwood. This map shows land I have walked on, some of it many times. Its contour lines trace hilltop overlooks I’ve climbed to.

I can picture that terrain, its flora and geology, in my mind as I trace the line across the map: birch trees that are probably just now budding out, trout lilies poking out of the leaf litter on either side of the trail, a cairn I built last year on a bare-rock hilltop. I wonder if it has toppled during the winter.

Familiar as I am with the many of the places depicted on this map, it still provokes questions to wonder about over morning coffee. How is the view from the top of Miscowabik Peak in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park? What characteristics define the Jessieville, Aurora and Norrie locations, separated by train tracks in the city of Ironwood.

There are creeks on this map with inscrutable names: Chipping, Match, Bebo. Another creek is called Buckless Creek, and it is easy to imagine a disappointed hunter trudging along its bank in the twilight of the last day of deer season. This map shows railroad tracks, campsites, tailings ponds, Lake Superior, scenic overlooks and parcels of publicly owned land (the green rectangles representing state park and national forest cover much of the map).

There is a lot to look at on a map.