Grabbing my easily distractible attention at this self-isolated moment is a colorful, glossy road map peeking out from my desk’s clutter. Measuring roughly 18 inches by 24 inches, the printed map encapsulates an antipodal, 103,483-square-mile country that required 20 hours of air travel for me to get there. Yes, it’s a map of New Zealand.
The time I spent there a few months ago wasn’t long enough. I had never before been and didn’t want to leave, and thus hoped to return one day. That day, much sooner than I ever hoped, suddenly feels like now — thanks to the map. Whether in plotting a future trip or reliving past travels, maps provide serendipitous, safe escape from the coronavirus lurking outside.
“Ready for an exciting journey?” asks the prominent typeface on the road map’s frontispiece. Published by Mode Car & Camper Rentals, the map both led and followed me everywhere — from the rental car’s glove compartment into my computer bag, then across the Pacific to where it now sits among domestic clutter.
To unfold the accordion-like panels is to be granted the revelatory overview of New Zealand’s North Island on one side and the South Island on the other. Major urban centers, such as Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, have their very own maps placed in insets where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea would normally, realistically lie.
The paper is beginning to tear at some of the folds, proof of its frequent use, especially when my hands were still damp from splashing in the breakers off Raglan or capsizing while canoeing on the Whanganui River. And that time I spilled a “long black” in the car, there’s evidence of that, too, in the coffee stains fouling the map’s Bay of Plenty. But paper, like Mother Nature herself, is more forgiving than a laptop keyboard or smartphone, which would have been ruined forever by such a spill.
I pick up the road map, unfold it, spread it across the desktop like a tablecloth. Its careful typography and precise lines cover up the disorder underneath of random stacks of disorganized sheets of unrelated papers. It also seems to impose temporary order on the outside world, now turned upside down by an unseen virus: If something can be mapped, it can be controlled.
The semigloss, heavyweight paper that the map is printed on feels good to the touch, more down-to-earth than satellite-based GPS. The road map’s very physicality, unlike fleeting images on MapQuest or Google Maps, seems warmly reassuring in this time of physical distancing when we can’t touch others.
Sure, I admit to following — passively, unthinkingly, unquestioningly — the commanding voice on my smartphone when, for instance, trying to forge the quickest path from Point A (Auckland) to Point B (nearby Beachlands). But to be an active participant in the journey — to be an aware traveler and truly understand where I was going — I needed the context of the printed road map.
Plus, GPS is just too easy, too detailed, leaving little to the imagination. Printed maps, on the other hand, are full of suggestive and mysterious blank spaces, waiting to be filled in by your creativity and personal experiences. In contrast, my smartphone’s Google app called Timeline leaves nothing to the imagination and imposes its own artificial-intelligence-generated memories over my own.
For my last pre-pandemic travels — to Quebec in search of enough snow to cross-country ski — Google Timeline recalls with perfect precision which restaurants I visited, what time I arrived at my Airbnb, its exact address, ad infinitum. But it’s all too much detailed information, ignoring the old marketing axiom regarding the powerful emotional mix of reminiscences and anticipation: to sell the sizzle and not the steak. So, instead, I prefer to unfold my well-used street map of Old Quebec City, where my mind’s eye can see in reawakened soft focus the blizzardlike conditions blurring the groomed trails on the Plains of Abraham. And more: I can savor again the bottle of wine I opened apres-ski in the warm glow of a rustic fireplace, away from Google’s prying, all-seeing eye.
“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” That celebrated quote from Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” speaks to the magic of maps. Among my favorites in seeing the world anew are topographical maps, available from the U.S. Geological Survey. They are matchless in coming to understand your travels’ lay of the land — especially when planning or reflecting upon outdoor activities. The maps’ contour lines let you, the hiker, know how steep and strenuous a trek may be or, as a white-water canoeist and kayaker, how rapid a river’s descent.
Since cartography’s earliest beginnings, huge blank spaces — terra incognita and mare incognitum — seduced adventurous travelers. Like theater, maps entertained, as evidenced by the title of the first attempt at a world atlas (1570) — Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the Orb of the World). Included in this atlas was the forerunner of my New Zealand road map, the hypothesized lands of the southern hemisphere Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown Land of the South).
Even earlier world maps, in the Middle Ages, known as the Mappa Mundi, make the point that maps are always mirrors that reflect the zeitgeist — and thus are portals to the past. Medieval mapmakers were less interested in producing accurate navigational guides than in making the world conform to the harmonious order of God’s creation. Symmetry and perfect spheres took precedence over the irregularity of mountains and twisting paths of rivers.
“Dissected maps” were some of the earliest jigsaw puzzles, in the 1700s, making geography fun for children. Originally cut from oak or mahogany, today’s cardboard versions are still popular, especially with adults keeping their minds active while stuck indoors. The 1,000-piece jigsaw of a 17th-century world map by Henricus Hondius, for instance, recently kept my self-isolated neighbors busy for days. They then swapped for other jigsaws with this understanding: “Disinfect and leave yours on your porch, and I will take yours and disinfect and leave mine.”
Years ago I started collecting antique maps, especially ones of my native Virginia. Though now matted, framed, under glass and hanging motionless on a wall inside a house, they’re a traveler’s delight — transporting you not only over miles and miles but centuries as well. To linger over Captain John Smith’s 1607-1608 map of the Chesapeake, for instance, is to put you in his boat as he sailed up the Potomac looking for a waterway to the Western Ocean, as if seeing the places he records for the first time. His names for now-familiar places endure.
Naming and (through revisionist history) renaming places illustrate the power of mapmakers. Their handiwork might be what we today call branding, for the story of a place can usually be found in its name. And if you could name a place, you controlled it. So it was that explorer Smith memorialized the land he mapped as “Virginia” after the virgin Queen Elizabeth, though he also recorded for posterity over a hundred Native American place names still in use today.
There’s even a name for the study of place names: toponymy. And so while gazing at my New Zealand road map, can it be said that I’m now engaged in a toponomastic search? Or call it mental peregrination, as I find myself hiking again up the rocky path of a small, spherical mountain rising where the Tauranga harbor meets the sea. Oddly out of place, this lone mountain is an extinct volcano called Mauao. What’s in a name?
The origins lie in a Maori tale of unrequited love. This small — at the time nameless — mountain deeply desired a neighboring, beautifully wooded hill. But her heart had already been taken by a higher, more prestigious mountain. So, sadly, the nameless mountain decided to drown itself in the ocean. His friends, the forest fairy people, who came out only at night, fastened him with lots of ropes to pull him to his death. They pulled all night and so created the valley seen today near Tauranga. But before they could get to the ocean, the sun rose — forcing the fairy people to retreat into the forest’s dark depths. Thus the mountain now stands where it does today, just touching the ocean, no longer nameless but called Mauao — meaning “caught by dawn.”
Three-dimensional space may be the subject matter of maps, but time is ultimately what they’re all about. The time of history and geological prehistory, of course, but also your own time as a traveler, plotting ahead or endlessly revisiting. Even beyond the past and future, each map contains an alternative universe of endless contingency and infinite possibility, of roads not taken and unvisited places. What if?
Nicklin is a writer based in Virginia. Find him on Twitter at: @RoadTripRedux.