Ken Jennings claims that his success on Jeopardy is directly related to his love of geography.
When you have a location to pin something to, you can picture the place and it can help remind you of a fact. To him, maps are a visual mnemonic.
I love maps. I do not love maps like Ken Jennings loves maps. I do not love maps like David Imus loves maps. But I love them none the less.
When I was a child, my father gave me his old copy of Doctor Dolittle. I still have it. It had a profound impact on my life, practically imperceptible to an outside observer.When Tommy Stubbins first appears with his injured squirrel and hears the Doctor talk to animals, he too wants to learn to talk to animals. Dr. Dolittle tells him that in order to learn to do this, one must be a good noticer. Much like Tommy, I decided to be a good noticer. I spent a lot of time trying to remember details from the world around me, trying to pick up little things that I saw. I am not <a href =”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ekman”>Paul Ekman</a>, but I don’t want to be like Paul Ekman–I want to be like the Doctor.
Similarly, Dr. Dolittle is quite well traveled. He goes as far as to play a game called Blind Travel, where you take the big atlas, close your eyes, open it, and then point. You proceed to voyage to that place. I always wanted to play Blind Travel, and would pour over maps and globes, randomly pointing at places again and again and imaging what it would be like to go.
Out of this staring at maps, I began to have a shallow appreciation of their beauty.
I don’t pretend to play Blind Travel anymore. I haven’t had an atlas since I was seventeen and moved out of my parents’ house. When I was young, there was a potential–the hope–that one day I would have the resources to go to actually random places. As I got older, time became more scarce and my values changed. Rather than trying to placate my own desires to be a pawn of fate (or chance), I am trying to accomplish things I think will help others. I have responsibilities–financial and social–that keep me from running off to Pushkino, Kazakhstan. Besides, playing Blind Travel with google maps is much less satisfying than the atlas.
I still do use google maps to fantasize. When google earth first came out, AG and I would go on trips together. We’d sit in her room and pull up satellite views of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Havana, Mexico City. I still do this, tracing routes that I could take, looking for how the streets fit together, and trying to imagine what my feet would sound like as I walked.
Everything seems so small and close together on a map. One-thousand three-hundred ninety-four miles becomes inches. I tweak lines, back and forth, to maximize the right towns, national parks, dirt roads, or daylight hours. I follow the interstates, county routes, train tracks, and rivers. I go down the Blue Ridge through Roanoke and past Asheville. I-17 from Phoenix, the 89 to I-15, through Provo and Salt Lake. The two lone highways that go through Wyoming, which I had to take to get to Boise. But really, I just went through Wyoming so I could take the 287/30 through Medicine Bow over green spotted rock piles and lazy mountains. Route 101 and I-5, with through rainforests, impossibly tall trees, mountains, and deserts. With the ocean on one side. I-40 to Memphis and Nashville and I-65 up to Louisville all through green, green, green. That one point in Rhode Island where the hard bike path became a gravel and dirt road for five miles that I slowly slid down. I-10 runs through parts of the South I’ve never been to. When I look at the thousand mile path I want to ride around the UK, I can see the grey skies and the rolling hills. The fields of bright green grasses with flat buildings made of stone, or dub. The train rides I never had the chance to take across Korea. The train ride I did take across a continent. I remember the train stopping at Novosibirsk, getting a gold-foil wrapped ice cream bar with a picture of Lenin on it and wondering if it was the only time I’d ever be there.
Geography is tied to canonical fantasies or memories that make up who we are. The dreams we have, of places we want to go or things we want to do (often in a specific place) are just as important to us as individuals as what has actually happened. The places we have been shape us, by affording opportunity to exposure.