Cartophile by
(124 Stories)

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

We were put on a bus, blindfolded, and driven around country roads this way and that.  At some point, groups of four were let out of the bus, given a map, and told to find our way back.  We were all fifth graders in East Lansing public school and this was part of the curriculum for our week at Clear Lake Camp–an exciting and scary prospect for newbies like me.  The blind drop-off was perhaps the most daunting.

At last it was our turn.  My group of four stood apprehensively, abandoned in the middle of the dusty road, with an unmarked T intersection not far away and only woods and fields in sight. I looked at the map, and the solution seemed impossibly simple.  If we just turned at the intersection, the road would lead us directly back to camp, maybe half a mile away.  No one else had a better idea, so we followed my suggestion and were the first ones back.

Maybe that wasn’t much of a challenge, but over the years I have thanked whatever mix of genetics and evolution makes it possible to carry locations in my brain.  Of course there is help from the position of the sun and visual landmarks like mountains and water, although I wouldn’t want to challenge a migrating bird or butterfly.  Maps also help.

I feel an almost physical need to know where, geographically, I am–and for that matter, genealogically, metaphysically, astronomically and relationship-wise. Maybe it has something to do with a sense of control over the vastness of existence.  One of the first things I want when traveling is a map, and I probably qualify as a “cartophile”.  Everything from hand-drawn sketches to ancient maps of the world, from historic ordinance maps of England and Scotland to globes with past and future solar eclipses–the number of maps in my house is ridiculous. We once bought another suitcase to cart home a large atlas of maps from the 1600’s.  The automobile associations also put out wonderful maps, as do local tourist services.  Although Google and car GPS have forever changed how we access geography and directions, there is still nothing like a good old-fashioned map at the right scale with the critical information.

Pre-GPS, Sally and I were driving from the Sierra Nevada to the Bay Area as night fell.  We were on some backroads, crossing the Central Valley, confident as we sped through the little towns toward I-5.  Maybe we were talking.  There were a few turns here and there, but we were both comfortably on the right road heading west, although it seemed that I-5 was elusively far.  Suddenly, Sally asked if that little bar with the neon sign that we passed on the right didn’t look a lot like the one we passed on the left a half hour earlier?  We tried to look at a map in the dim car light, tried to look for stars overhead, but it was clear that our inner maps were both 180 degrees off and we were steadfastly headed east.  The more smug you are in your orientation, the harder it is to recalibrate.  And how could we both have had our sense of direction fail us so?  We were humbled.

In the end, we are not in as much control as we might like to think we are.  But maybe that is why it is so satisfying when you set a course and actually end up at your goal.





Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. Thanx Khati for this tribute to maps and our inner maps!

    I’d had that experience – even with GPS – of recognizing a landmark that we’ve surely passed awhile back. Remember Chevy Chase in the very funny European Vacation passing and re-passing the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I didn’t see the Chevy Chase movie, but for sure it is not enough to blindly follow the GPS! That said, no better way to get around a place like London, even if you are just walking or taking public transport(and driving in London is NOT recommended ). Big Ben and other landmarks are not always as visible as we might hope.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    I admire your ability to navigate from your locational tools and love of cartography. It has clearly served you well you entire life. I also love the way you describe your need to understand your sense of place in the universe. Well-stated. Yes, GPS can help, but understanding your location from maps, the stars, the native landmarks will never fail you (unless you aren’t paying attention).

    • Khati Hendry says:

      The sun rising in the east is always a good one, but when I was in Long Beach California, the geography was such that it was possible to see the sun rise over part of the Pacific Ocean, which really got me hauling out the maps to see WTF? Maybe part of the fascination with seeing pictures of earth from space or solar eclipses is because it makes it so clear where we are in a much bigger picture.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Thank you for the word “cartophile,” Khati. I’ve been streaming a lingusitics course and the lecturer – -a terrific professor at UMich — stresses the beauty of the perfect word for a particular thing or action, whether old or new or just invented.

    Anyhow, “cartophile” perfectly captures you. And, to a fair bit, me, as I, too, love to know, literally, where the hell I am. And yes; I do believe it all stems from a desire to be in control.

    Your last paragraph captures it perfectly – -as you so often do in your stories. Way to go! (-:

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Not surprised we have some similarities on this one. And I think that, although we can learn how to read a map, much of the love
      of knowing where we are—and having a sense of direction—is what we are born with. A gift worthy of much gratitude.

  4. Suzy says:

    Khati, I am in awe of the fact that you got off that bus in fifth grade and knew exactly where to go! I would have probably gone the wrong way. In fact, friends used to joke that they should ask me which way I thought we should go, and then do the opposite, and it would probably be right! Some brains have that innate sense of direction and some don’t – yours obviously does. However, it does give me some satisfaction to learn that even you could get disoriented, as you did on that search for I-5 long ago. Too bad we weren’t close in those days, you could have called me and come to my house, since I live right off of I-5 (as you now know).

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Yes, but who had a cell phone then ha ha. Okay, there were some pay phones still in the world. I’m not sure there aren’t some advantages to having a fluid sense of location, as opposed to a firm conviction that you know where you are—and struggle to get your brain reoriented when you are wrong. In the end, we figure how to adapt to how our brains work one way or the other. And I did appreciate GPS finding your house in Sacramento!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I really envy your ability to know (most of the time) where you are and where you want to go. Perhaps my inability to do that reflects who I am. At many times during my life, I had no idea what would come next. It never bothered me that much except when driving.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Your characterization of having no idea of what to do next sounds oh so familiar—especially before I got on the medical train. Feeling lost may be part of the human condition, so finding “home” means a lot, literally and figuratively. Locating your position geographically is lovely, but finding purpose and those you love even better.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    Nice to know a fellow cartophile!

    Even now, I love a good map over GPS. My phone can tell me where I am, but planning a route from there to elsewhere, nothing beats the “big picture” aspect of a map, as opposed to slowly scrolling your screen in what you hope is the direction of your goal.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Amen!! I can’t believe people even produce travel books without maps, or don’t appreciate the importance of what is put in or left out, and how that relates to other information —cartography is a true art. Does google provide adequate details on diving spots, or decent geographic labeling? And scrolling and zooming—say no more. I thought you might share this appreciation for maps—thanks.

  7. Khati, you might love a book called The Forest that I read back in the 1970s. In one of the most dramatic parts, the author is lost in the rainforest (in the Philippines, where the whole memoir takes place). After days, without food and having passed some of the same landmarks numerous times, he finally realizes that if you follow a stream, it will never double back on itself. It has to lead you to somewhere different.
    Your story had to be good if it brought forth a memory of that old chestnut.
    My wife is like you, carrying a map in her head as well as always enjoying looking at maps. I am at the other end of the spectrum, a person who got lost in his own high school, and who has gotten lost driving even in a small town.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Thanks for the suggestion—we have a great bookstore in town (semi-miraculously—a survivor, the type with piles of old books and treasures stuffed floor to ceiling along with newer selections) that might have something like that. Good idea about following the stream! From your description of you and your wife, it sounds like the perfect argument for teamwork.

Leave a Reply