When I was younger, there were a couple of career goals I had to give up pretty early in the game. My first dream of being Thomas the Tank Engine when I grew up was hardly practical. Becoming an architect was a more serious aspiration before I realised I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in such a mathematical occupation. Then it, too, fell by the wayside along with critic, teacher, and eventually journalist. All of these jobs occasionally show up in my life as hobbies (with the exception of talking cartoon train). And all of them are pretty normal answers to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (again, with the exception of Thomas). But there is another job I’ve always dreamed about, and though I’m fine with the fact that it’s a career goal I’ll probably never realise, it’s something I’ve always kept in the back of my mind as something rare about me, something most people don’t aspire to do.
Ever since I was younger—maybe not back in the days of Thomas the Train, but certainly well before I settled on writing and publishing—I’ve loved maps. I used to have a big, rainbow-coloured, terrain-textured globe in my room that I’d spin and examine, looking at the hot pink shape of China or the yellow form of Brazil. A placemat with an outline of the United States, each state and capitol marked off on the diagram, sat in front of me at the kitchen table.
The interest in maps continued throughout my life. Everyone has those weird things that they can be a total nerd and go on for hours about but will never do anything with professionally; for me it’s cartography.
When I studied abroad in England I became enamoured with the eye-catching but geographically-unsound tube maps that plastered the walls of the London Underground and could be collected in tiny pamphlets with artistic interpretations on the front. At the end of the semester for a final project in my Art in London course, I created a mobile of sorts, dozens of those pamphlets hanging at different heights to signify different tube lines—Victoria, District, Piccadilly, the always-under-construction-on-the-weekends Circle—and covered them with thoughts I had written down while I travelled their counterparts to class or my internship or a museum.
Fictional maps are just as fascinating to me. I’m pretty sure I could draw a passable facsimile of the map of Middle Earth that can be found at the start of The Lord of the Rings just from the intentness with which I’ve studied it each time I’ve read and re-read the books. Then there are maps as art, whether they are new takes on classic designs like this alternate tube map by an artist with synaesthesia who documents not by their names but by the way they taste, or entirely new creations. I love “From Here to There” by Nobutaka Aozaki: the Japanese artist uses directions to various locations, drawn by strangers when he asks for assistance, to create a map of Manhattan.
Most of all, I love historical maps: the ones with ornate compass roses and misguided allusions to dragons and mermaids. I love the maps that aren’t entirely filled in, the ones that contain trap streets that nobody has noticed yet, the maps that hint ominously that in a certain part of the uncharted sea, here there be monsters. Imagine living in a world like that, where you couldn’t just pull out your smartphone and look up your location on Google Maps*, where you couldn’t pull out a map at all because someone was waiting for you to make one. In one of my favourite plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, Guildenstern claims that England is “just a conspiracy of cartographers.” It’s satire, of course; he’s a fool for not believing it exists, but imagine there being places in the world we just don’t know about yet.
And surely, there are. I may never be a cartographer, but maybe this is why I like to travel so much. I may not create the map, but I could see myself anywhere on it.
*Not that I’m knocking Google Maps, mind you. Even if I’m known as having a pretty good sense of direction (to some of my friends, anyway; the one I once accidentally drove through Delaware and through the shadiest parts of New Jersey in the same week would probably disagree) I always feel a bit lost when I don’t have reception to double check.
By the way, if you didn’t get the title reference, check out this song by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.