It’s true, guys. I’m sorry I never told you, but I’m a cartophile: I love maps!
It’s amazing how squiggles and grids can fascinate me so much. I’ve always been interested in maps: atlases, globes, city maps, subway maps, and of course, world maps.
I can stare at an atlas for hours, looking at the place I live on paper, seeing it flat and blue and green. I look at places I’ve been and places I long to visit. You Are Here: one of the most gleeful satisfying phrases I can think of. Here I am, here is where I’m going, let’s figure out the best route to get there and all the points of interest in between.
My map obsession is inherently linked to my passion for travel. Before I arrive in a new city, I study a map of it enough to pass a beginner’s geography quiz. In the weeks leading up to my Seattle trip, I spouted out geographical information to customers and friends. I knew all the bodies of water, which mountains were west (Olympics) and which were east (Cascades), and where the airport was in relation to the city. By the end of my first day, I knew the stops on the light rail, and therefore the north-south order of several neighborhoods . I read beforehand that the streets could be difficult to navigate, and so felt slightly apprehensive about getting around. It turned out that I had a pretty good grasp on the city by the time my week was up, and never once got lost. (is it even possible to get lost when Google Maps exists?)
Even on my first solo trip, I memorized the layouts of the European cities I visited so I wouldn’t have to walk around with a guidebook or paper map in hand (heaven forbid looking like a tourist!). A few years later, my couchsurfing host in Barcelona voiced his disbelief that I didn’t carry a map with me. It’s in my head, I said.
This is part of what I love about solo travel: I need to figure everything out. There is no one else to rely on or defer to, and for an introverted, often passive person like me, it’s an empowering experience.
We’re so spoiled in the twenty-first century, since we have mobile devices and apps that do everything for us. So many people give up control to their GPS, listening to whatever it tells them to do and never knowing which direction they’re headed without it. While I relied on Google Maps often on my Seattle trip, I know that I could have gotten by without it. This was my first trip with a smartphone: every other place I’ve been, I relied on asking locals for directions, or a guidebook, or researching online before I set out for the day.
I take inspiration from female pioneers in exploration, for whom paper maps were a necessity. Famed travelers like Isabella Bird or Freya Stark, went where no other women had set foot before, often to the ridicule and disdain of their countrymen. I’m grateful that many of these daring women happen to have been eloquent writers and chose to share their stories.
A map is a pretty extraordinary thing. It holds history and science, treasures and dreams, possibility and opportunity.