I follow Russell Crowe‘s Twitter feed. He uses his Tweets (I truly loathe that term, by the way) to publicize his work and to express opinions and comments about his life that seem good to him to write about. I enjoy this glimpse he allows his followers (of which he has many) into his life and work. Several of his recent Tweets (there’s that stupid word again) have to do with maps. He enjoys them, apparently, finds them fascinating, and often gets out maps and looks at them to, in his words (more or less, he’s taken down this particular set of Tweets (grrrrh), I think, and I can’t find the quote), plan adventures.
While there are perhaps not too many personality traits a major movie star who lives in Australia and a somewhat obscure, at least so far, writer temporarily in LA but living in Colorado have in common, I too look at maps and plan adventures. And sometimes dream about the lines on the maps becoming a real journey.
Once I’d read his ‘comments’ (I’m simply not going to use that damned Twitter term again) about maps, I got down my huge atlas and leafed through the pages, which led directly to my road trip (I drove) from Colorado to southern California. So thanks for that, Mr. Crowe. You inspired this essay, but also a real journey following a road map that led me 1300 miles from Estes Park, Colorado to Los Angeles, California. I guess I won’t thank you for the snowstorm that included itself in my trip, you couldn’t possibly have known, but it did add to the adventure, after all, and that’s what dreamily looking at maps is all about.
When it comes to less likely adventure planning, the topographic maps are difficult for me to decipher, so I best like the maps that have highways on them, and cities and towns and parks and cultural activities and historical markers and battlefields and whatnot. I trace the highways and wonder about the cities, and plan how I would drive from, say, Sienna to Rome, and whether there would be time for a side trip to Naples. (Italy is one of my favorite maps.) I look at the railroad lines and markers and think about taking a journey by rail all the way across India (I think it’s still possible to do that; certainly, the map has the little cross-hatched lines that indicate railroads), and what that would be like. I’ve read novels set in the Raj where the author describes rail cars in which the porter puts a huge block of ice into a pail in the middle of the car so that the passengers will not literally expire from the heat. I don’t love heat, particularly humid heat, and I wonder whether that would be an adventure or merely an ordeal.
But then, while we can plan adventures by tracing the lines on a map, we can’t really know just from the map whether the journey will be a wonder or an ordeal. One of the nice things about looking at maps and dreaming our adventures is that we can take the journey in imagination and not actually have to get cholera shots or miss connections at the airport or find that the only bathroom is down the hall and always occupied or sit in a railroad car with a block of ice to provide the only air conditioning. And while there is only so much time (and money) a person can spend traveling, whether in luxury or in intentional (or, as happens more often with travel than we like to think, unintentional) squalor, one can travel anywhere and everywhere in one’s mind. As long as we have maps.
Quite a while ago, while waiting for a travel agent to finish with the prior customer, I browsed through the brochures displayed. One of them, an oversized booklet, was for a company (I’m sure long since defunct) that did ‘adventure’ travel. Very expensive, as I recall, completely out of my reach. But one trip I particularly remember was the Silk Road Adventure. This was before travel was easy or comfortable in the People’s Republic of China and while (I think) the Russians were the current Afghani opponent of choice (not their choice). So the trip in the brochure consisted of jets (to get to Peking as it was then called), then trains (to follow the China portion of the Silk Road), then a genuine camel caravan (still used then and undoubtedly now to transport goods over the roof of the world), then (I think I recall) hiking with sherpas, and finally a grand finish in Samarkand (still one of the most beautiful place names in the world), after which the traveler, a good deal lighter in the wallet and probably in weight, presumably rejoined the 20th Century. The maps for the excursion were done in a 19th century style, on a sand-colored background, hand-drawn with tiny pictures of camels and horses and people in burnooses and I traced the route and imagined being part of a caravan on the Silk Road and felt an amazing sense of romance.
I asked for a copy of the brochure and kept it for years, long past its expiration date, and I wish I still had it. I don’t know whether and how much I would have enjoyed (in the sense that one enjoys the beach at Lahaina, say) the trip, but I wanted to do something that adventurous, that crazy, that really dangerous, and in some part of me, I still do. So the next place I looked in my atlas after the inspiration provided by Mr. Crowe’s Twitter comment was the Silk Road. It fills me still with wonder. People have been moving themselves and their goods back and forth on this trail from the middle East to China for now thousands of years. It’s rather a boggle to the mind to think of, isn’t it? Even the words evoke excitement: camels and howdahs and caravanserai, silks and spices and gold, Persia and Arabia and China. And it’s all there, right there, on the map as you trace the path.
While I was following the ageless track of the Silk road in the atlas and wondering a bit about which map Mr. Crowe was devouring, I found myself thinking about semantics. A non sequitur and yet not really. Semantics is the study of the intersection (or lack of same) between the real world and the words humans use to describe it. One of the scientific giants in the field was Alfred Korzybski (not a name that one thinks of often, is it?) He once said (probably more than once, knowing scientific giants): “The map is not the territory.” For somebody who loves maps, this is a good thing to remember. But it’s also a good thing to remember about living life anyway. You see, you can plan but then the real thing will happen and it usually doesn’t much resemble the plan. We all make proposed maps of our lives. And we all find out over and over again that the same thing happens: we create our carefully planned map, take the first step according to the plan, and then all hell breaks loose. The road is closed in the only direction we want to go. Under construction. Isn’t it always? So we take a detour, and remake the plan to get back to the main road as quickly as possible. Sometimes the detour works out better for us than the main road. But other times, not so much. Because the only bridge on the detour is washed out. And the towns the detour goes through are nothing like the Paris you just knew you would visit because it was on your map or the New York City you knew you would live in because that was in the plan. And the people aren’t what you had in mind, either. Better possibly, more helpful, sometimes not a whole lot of fun. Probably a lot more interesting. But not the ones marked on your map.
And all these metaphors for life (John Lennon: Life is what
happens while you were making other plans) reflect back to Korzybski’s great metaphor that the map is not the territory. That the life you find yourself living is not the pretty map you laid out in your teen years or early twenties. Happens to us all. So when you’re planning your next trip and drooling over your internal maps showing the historical markers (graduation with the medical degree, say, or a June wedding to the investment banker or, for that matter, the blues musician), and the gorgeous views (that beach in Lahaina, the Eiffel Tower), and the lovely long easy journey over well-marked roads into a happy twilight filled with blissful memories, you might want to remember, just occasionally, that some of the historical markers will have been torn down or never erected, that some views (try the trip from JFK through Queens to Manhattan, sometime) are not gorgeous, and your trip might end abruptly (ouch) or even worse in a long unhappy slog through our medical system. (Abruptly sounds better, doesn’t it?) Your real adventure will be in some ways better than your plan because it will be real, but it may not be nearly as beautiful or even as adventurous. All you can know for sure is that it will be different. The map is not the territory.
But then again, if maps are not territories, sometimes that’s a really good thing. Let’s ponder, for a moment, shall we, map edges. What happens and what do you find between the edge of one map and the beginning of another? That might be the best place, the biggest adventure, of them all. In all the old maps, toward the edges where nobody knew what anybody would find because nobody (at least nobody who talked to the mapmakers) knew what was out there, you’ll find enchanting and scary drawings of monsters and the legend “beyond here be dragons.” And you know what, even if all the places in the map have been filled up with ‘real’ information, there are still dragons out beyond the edge. All who have ever gone adventuring have their own definitions of what a dragon is before the start of their journeys and a probably much different knowledge of those dragons when (or if) they return.
And if there weren’t dragons, what would be the point of looking at the map, planning or engaging in the adventure? We look at a map, whether of Africa or Asia or, perhaps, our lives, and we want dragons, we want some enchantment. (At least while we’re looking at the map. When we make it real and we’re in New Mexico and tired out, and it’s getting dark and starting to snow, and the dragon turns out to be a luxury hotel that somehow has transmogrified itself into the local no-tell motel, it doesn’t seem quite so enchanting.) Come to think of it, ‘enchantment is a strange word. In our modern world it doesn’t mean much more than glitter and a fancy dinner and a long walk by the ocean, I suppose, but to be ‘enchanted’ throughout most of human history was to be under the spell of magic and out of one’s own control. It usually ended all right in the stories, but it was a hard thing to go through. Sometimes, maybe, just bad water and not enough food, but not all journeys are about getting from one place to another and you can find some major dragons out there, the kind with very bad breath and extremely sharp teeth.
Regarding old maps with dragons at the edges, it isn’t true that early shipfarers thought they’d fall off the edge of the world as if the world were merely a map, but there were points beyond which they couldn’t and wouldn’t go for many long centuries because of some real problems. Maps are useless on the ocean. They call it the trackless sea for a reason. In order to get from one place to another in a ship when you can’t see any land, you can’t use maps, you have to use something called celestial navigation. In the long, long ago, that was not easy. It took a while for navigators to figure out the principle of the compass (at least a compass lets you know in what direction you’re lost) and even longer to find out ways to figure out how far north (or south) you are (I think that’s what an astrolabe is for, or maybe a sextant). During the day, if there’s no cloud cover, or not too much, you can figure out if you’re going east or west by where the sun is, so long as you have some idea of what time it is. And at night there are stars (again, cloud cover really messes this up) that from experience you know are in certain apparent directions. But that doesn’t really help you figure out exactly where east or west (or north or south) is. And those damned oceans are really damned big. You can figure (and you’d be right) that if you keep going west, you’re bound to run into something, but look at what happened to Columbus. And finding land of any kind can take longer than you have food or water. Oooops.
All of this circles back to Mr. Crowe because he portrayed (and quite well, too) a ship’s captain in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” So he probably knows much more, still, about how those tiny ships navigated those huge oceans than I do or ever will (or want to, because that would mean having to deal with arithmetic). He knows, I’m sure, that ship navigators did (and do) use maps of a sort, which they call charts, because on them they chart their current position from the last known place using the compass, sextant, astrolabe and other instruments of navigation. Thus, they could chart (more or less, usually less, exactly) where they were at any given moment. GPS is a lot easier, but where’s the adventure in that? After all, while you may fall off the edge of the world or get eaten by dragons, at least insofar as the world you left behind would know, you also might find a magical new place that up to now only its inhabitants knew existed. For a long time, Tahiti was just a myth and that’s how the sailors wanted to keep it.
Another thing about maps. They provide not only a picture of a place, but a moment in time. There is a romance to old maps that GPS or any other kind of modern navigational aid simply does not have. Among the fascinations of the early United States map I have (the picture is at the top of the essay and I apologize for the light bloom from the flash) is that its primary inset map is of the Gold Fields in California! A statement about what was important when the map was published. In 1853, people were still pouring into northern California by the thousands to look for riches, fighting all the dragons in their way.
Finally, there are the imaginary maps created to help us trace the journeys of our heroes in their fantastic worlds: Middle Earth, Fionavar, Erewhon, the map of London showing 221B Baker Street, the map of Odysseus’ travels, even the nine circles of hell mapped in the Divine Comedy (so-called because it had a happy ending). Now there’s a map filled with dragons! When I was little (or littler, at least), I used to make up maps, creating islands and seas and rivers, places to find my adventure and fight my dragons. Now, of course, the map of the real world seems to have more than enough dragons, and charting a course through the mystical maps of my plans and dreams truly the adventure of a lifetime.
So what maps am I looking at to plan adventures now? Well, as I said, I’m a follower of Russell Crowe, so I am learning about Australia by, among other things, looking at maps and planning adventures. Sydney is way more south than I thought it was. That’s one thing I’ve learned about it. And it’s bigger. The harbour (that’s how it’s spelled) is beautiful. Everybody has seen the pictures of the Sydney Opera House at the edge of the water there. Gorgeous! There are other big cities on the east coast, Brisbane and Melbourne being two of them. Australia does have mountains, which I found surprising. By the way, they call lakes lagoons. And they call their back country the bush. (For a long time, I visualized this as a kind of great plains as I would know them in Colorado, with bushes about six feet high dotted about, but that’s not what they mean when they say ‘the bush’. They mean what Coloradans do when we talk about the woods or the high country or the boonies–it’s simply the Australian term for empty as opposed to developed land.) They’ve got a lot of bush: the major portion of Australia still looks, according to the maps, like the Great American Desert in maps of the United States in the 19th Century. They apparently call this GABA, which means “Great Australian Bugger All.” Hmmmnh. Adventure? Or just a hot ordeal? Well, I can plan all the adventures Australia can offer but still not know what it’s like to be there from a page in an atlas. And after all, because Mr. Crowe is looking at his own maps and planning his own adventures, he might not be willing to be my tour guide on an adventure (or an ordeal) in Australia. That could be scary, because he could help. After all, there might be dragons.