Timelines & Discoveries
I’ve always loved maps. As a kid, I would spin the globe in our living room as fast as I could. With a jab, I’d poke my finger out to stop at a random location. Then I’d open up the encyclopedia to find out whatever I could about that place. I always loved France because I knew my ancestors were French. But I was fascinated by other countries too. I was especially and inexplicably drawn to Madagascar — I liked the way its name rolled off my tongue — what a wonderful sound! And the baobab trees (also a super fun word to say out loud) are so strange and otherworldly. Their smooth skin glows like brass in the sunlight, and stretches around naked, girthy trunks that reach over 30 feet overhead. Gnarly limbs and branches finally spread out at the very top, forming a flat, disklike canopy that casts nary a shadow on the ground.
I studied my dad’s giant paper road maps too. I’d choose one of the states from a pile he had stuffed in the glovebox of his company car, and open it up all the way. Back then, I could barely stretch my arms out wide enough to see the whole thing. I loved the snapping sound the paper made as I tried to pull it taught. Riding alongside him, I learned the town names and ran my finger along the roads and freeways. I was fascinated by the legend’s complexity — I studied the meaning of each color, the line weights, and icons. Dad and I played roadtrip games like I Spy, and we kept track of how many license plates we saw from out of state.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been drawing. And maps of various sorts were always fun to make. In grade school, I drew treasure maps, which my friends and I crumpled up and rubbed in the dirt to make it look authentic. Our world was the schoolyard, our pirate ship was a pile of old airplane tires. I also drew intricate mazes and puzzles. I tried to make each one more complicated than the ones before. And I was good at drawing dream houses on grid paper, where I’d map out the locations of windows, doors, all the rooms, and (of course) secret passageways. Later, at college, everyone was required to take four physical education classes to graduate. Luckily, there were lots of themes to choose from. Naturally, I signed up for orienteering, and I loved running around in the woods — by myself — trying to capture all the waypoints before everyone else.
When I lived in California (after my dad died), I’d trek cross country with my compass and maps in desolate places like the Mojave Desert and San Gabriel Mountains. Like so many others, I was drawn to travel in the wake of a big personal loss, looking for change. Travel scholar Casey Blanton (1997) explains that for many American travelers, “the idea of travel [is] a symbolic act, heavy with promises of a new life, progress, and the thrill of escape” (p.18). Indeed, I gained confidence and a powerful sense of independence from roaming around on foot over long distances in wild(ish) places with few well-worn trails.
As I walked among the desert hills of Southern California and Nevada, I often came across crumbling cabins, corrals made of scrub oak and juniper branches, and old abandoned mines, left behind after White prospectors moved through searching for gold, silver, and other resources. Mines like these are usually creepy and almost always dangerous. The ground can be unstable, and people sometimes have to be rescued after they tumble down the mine’s long, underground shaft. I feel sad when I see how the land has been exploited. These places tend to be hidden from view, so it can be easy to overlook the damage they cause. I try to imagine what it must’ve been like before Europeans showed up — when rivers ran free and land wasn’t bifurcated with barbed wire with no trespassing signs.
Blanton, C. (1993). Narrating Self and Other: A Historical Overview, in Travel Writing: The Self and World. Twayne Publishers.
Colorado Public Radio (2018). Across the West and Colorado, Old Mines Drive Curiosity and Danger. Accessed from https://www.cpr.org/2018/10/30/across-the-west-and-colorado-old-mines-drive-curiosity-and-danger/
Madagascar: Treasure Island (n.d.). The Baobab, A Malagasy Tree. Accessed from https://madagascar-tourisme.com/en/what-to-do/fauna-and-flora/baobab/