When I was a kid and we took family vacations, always driving, I almost always whined my way into the front seat where I could be seated between my parents, riveted on the landscape unwinding in front of me. I was fascinated with where I was going --- as the mailboxes, billboards, cars, houses, cows and landscape streamed past me. I didn't sleep; I was afraid I would miss something. By the time I began reading, I was studying the Rand McNally road atlas, plotting new trips, pondering the names of cities and towns I had not visited, dreaming about what life must be in such and such a place, over the Appalachians, by the sea, along the route of a lonely road through an (apparently) empty western state. I was always ready to go. I sat in the front seat, directing my Dad, calling out highway names, distances to the next town, what was coming next, the map unfolded in my lap, a multi-colored promise of what was to come.
But maps are mostly one-dimensional. They don't tell you what it felt like to drive through a racially tense East St. Louis in 1966, when my Dad had us lock our doors and roll up our windows, running red lights, fear moving us on through streets full of people. They can't convey the awe of looking into the Grand Canyon or over Niagara Falls, though later the names on the map became iconic, windows for remembrance. They can't tell you how my younger sister nearly drowned in a mountain stream which, on the map, is just a thin and jagged blue line, how my cousin (who traveled with us once) went sleepwalking through our motel's property one night, or what it smelled and felt like to drive over the Mississippi, windows down, after midnight.
Just now, I'm looking at a map of the East Africa country of Uganda, tracing the highway from Kampala to Ft. Portal, and the place where my friends live, Kaihura, doesn't even rate a "dot" on the map. On this map, they don't exist, and the roads, which seem to suggest you can get anywhere, belie the reality that many are washboard rough and riven by potholes, lined with people walking and carrying too-large bundles. And the smells! I have not yet seen a scratch and sniff map. Maps suggest peril and promise, help us dream, but until we've been there, had an experience of a place, they don't tell us much.
Author Maggie Jackson says that "our maps echo our veneration of exploration, our facility with space-shifting, our enchantment with posing new questions and storytelling." But she goes on to say that "a society that leaves no room for attachment cannot make songlines. We are not using maps to ground ourselves but to enable us to keep moving on." We have been an excessively mobile society, relishing our ability to jet across the country for weekend in LA, and then back to the East coast for Monday work. Though I can't handle that kind of displacement, I often confront a weekend with a single question: "Where can we go next," like the byline for a travel magazine. What Jackson is saying is that our liberating mobility has a cost, that "[t]he tempo of travel blurs the landscape, and our vehicles increasingly enfold us in a bubble of remove."
Maybe the kid in me still seeks liberation from the mundane, adventure rather than dutiful plodding in one place, the sensual sights, sounds, and smells of a new place, where no one knows me, where I can be what I want to be. In the end, maybe that's it --- we want to be set free from the mundane and able to be all that we were meant to be. We open the map, load the car, board the plane, and set our eyes on what's next, dreaming of what it will be like. And yet I have never returned from a single road trip or vacation thinking I had arrived at Shangri-La. Something is still missing, and however idyllic the place I ventured to, every bad habit and selfish propensity went with me. Whatever the bright colors on the map promise, they will come up short. In the end, we need a different kind of map, a map of the human heart, one that delivers on its promise to set us free. I don't think Rand McNally will do. We need a new cartographer.