A Love Affair With Maps

Maps represent our locations, they can serve as a reminder of where we’ve been, and they sometimes show us the best route to the mall. Our writer charts a personal history across the changing lines of his home state.

At a Glance

As a shape it is awkward, and unwieldy. It would be almost impossible to find its center of gravity just by looking at it. You’d have to cut it out of a piece of wood with a band saw and throw it into the air, observing its axis of rotation. (I’d place my bet you’d find it at Bardstown.) The roads twist around and fold in upon themselves in a way they don’t in states just to its west, making them appear as rivers and streams, were it not for their coloration. It’s not the kind of map you expect to remember with any sort of fidelity. Its northern outline, the Ohio River, and its extreme western edge, the Mississippi, twist through the hills and form an incomprehensible border that violates any feeling of order. The careful map-reader will notice spots along the Mississippi where Kentucky territory spills across the river and takes hold of land that should belong to Missouri, the result of changes in the course of the river before modern engineering regulated its course. This is a map of the state where I grew up, the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Indeed, the folds of the river and even the allotment of territory on either side of the Mississippi vary from map to map, an indication that what you are looking at is only an idea, not an outline. Finding these discrepancies makes me feel the area being surveyed has somehow eluded its surveyors, its grandeur or complexity proving irreducible. Of course, the map I’m using, from the 2001 NASCAR Road Atlas, is an inaccurate one. Although topographical maps and the like interest me, they don’t as much as this map, because what I’m looking for is an overview that I can reconcile with my reality—or memory, anyway. Too much information obscures the point of my exercise.

It is a busy map. Kentucky has more counties than any other state save one in the union, and there are many towns, such as Rabbit Hash, that are little more than a smattering of buildings at a point where the road meets the river. Yet Rabbit Hash continues to appear on many maps, perhaps only because of the number of T-shirts and bumper stickers sold at the Rabbit Hash general store that say things like, ‘Where in de heck is Rabbit Hash Kentucky?’ My Old Kentucky Home appears on the map, as does Mammoth Cave—places that can easily be found now, their status as state and national parks affording them cartographical superiority, though one is a house that begat a song and the other a system of caves that has never been fully explored. Kentucky maps more than just surface geography. And when I look at this map, I’m mapping my own history, making mental notes where my life happened.

As Memory

Going back and forth between the skeleton map of my memories of places and the still more imperfect road map, I look for confirmation that I really was there and that I did something; I look for a reflection of me within these colored lines. In Owensboro, I visited a girl whose name I’ve forgotten. Her dad made crystal meth in their three-bedroom house, or so I was told. When I was there, he walked into his daughter’s room with a machete in one hand and a human skull in the other and said to me, ‘This is what I did to the last guy who came snooping around here.’ At Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee border, I went fishing with my dad and my uncle several years in a row. The lake was formed by an earthquake in the early 1800s and there always seemed to be something fearful lurking beneath the surface, and not too many fish, if I recall correctly. I remember my uncle trying to start the motor on the boat one afternoon when it had somehow been taken off idle and started moving as soon as the motor caught. Uncle Dick was thrown overboard, still holding the pull cord, and we dragged him across the lake while my dad tried to figure out how to stop the boat. Though I thought it was funny at the time, Dick’s hand could have been taken off by the propellers. In Maysville, I ate at the Golden Corral with my friend Randy and we listened to a dishwasher on his break tell the elderly, overweight hostess folding napkins, ‘I thrive on chaos and disorder.’ She smiled politely. ‘That’s why I work here. If I didn’t work here I’d either join the Army or become an air-traffic controller. But if you become an air-traffic controller you can’t use narcotics. Have you ever heard the sound of 90 M-16s going off at one time?’ The hostess laughed and shook her head.

The notable Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry wrote, ‘One of the most significant costs of the economic destruction of farm populations is the loss of local memory, local history, and local names. Fields’ names, for instance, even such colorless names as ‘the front field’ and ‘the back field’ are vital signs of culture.’ I recall an abandoned foundation off Amsterdam Road, only a mile from my house, where my high-school friends and I would gather to build fires and drink beer. We called it ‘the secret spot,’ and it was located next to ‘the swamp,’ which is where ‘the thing’ lived. ‘The thing’ existed only in our imaginations, an expression of our sense of mystery and danger, what we felt or wished to feel. When a bulldozer turned the swamp and the secret spot into the ‘Country Squire Estates,’ it simultaneously challenged my memory to keep hold of the old names, the ones that could help me piece together the geography of a childhood that now exists only in fragments.

The importance of names has always been something of an issue for those born here and those who immigrated here from afar. Only until I was older did I realize Florence, Ky., where the water tower reads ‘Florence Ya’ll,’ was named after the Italian city. Neither did it occur to me that Versailles, pronounced Ver-Sales, was also of Continental origins. The more the names are changed and emblazoned on area water towers, the more aware we are there is a vital local culture. The trouble begins with the implementation of colorless monikers that could exist anywhere like ‘Mall Road’ and ‘Commerce Street.’ Of course, the names correspond to a level of physical reality: There is a mall here, commerce occurs there. But these names undermine our awareness of local history even as they help us find the mall. So, at the end of the day, we may visualize where we are in terms of the mall alone.

As Fiction

Much is made of maps’ influence on empire and vice versa, an example of which can be found in Borges’s ‘On Exactitude in Science’: ‘In that empire, the art of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single province occupied the entirety of a city, and the map of the empire, the entirety of a province.’ Empires replace local geography with prescribed forms, in the interest of order. An interstate is one such form, implemented in the name of order, but which makes life impossible for anyone living to close to it, while its signs direct people to certain specified points and away from other, unspecified areas. Likewise, looking at maps draws our attention to the expressways and population centers—with their large type and shaded halos—and makes us forget about the smaller places whose names have been excluded. Soon, this forgetting is mirrored by a real physical change in the landscape. In the Borges story, the map becomes so big that it’s the size of the empire itself. It becomes so big that it blocks out the world and replaces it with a likeness. This may seem absurd, but atlases are some of the biggest books in the library, and when I stop to consider the amount of time I’ve spent with them, I grow a little worried.

When I was 14 I moved into a house outside Covington that overlooked the Ohio River and the towns of Ludlow and Bromley and much of Cincinnati. At night the grid of street lights provided unconnected dots for the valley’s roads. I’d follow cars from street light to street light and see if I could influence the turns they made through telekinesis. Perhaps in the back of the mapmaker’s mind lives the fantasy that one day the world will follow the map, and not the other way around. This fantasy becomes less ridiculous when we consider the increasing number of roads and barriers erected that began with lines on maps and only later took concrete form—the Berlin Wall, for example. Yet, as the Borges story illustrates, the forces of time and nature ultimately win out over attempts to reconcile the world with our vision of it, although we may have to live with the wreckage of our attempts to do so for some time. My love affair with maps developed at about the same time I was attempting to direct traffic with my mind, and it was tied not only to a desire to reconfigure my surroundings, but also to reconnect myself with people and places that no longer seemed real to me. I used to say that the river my parents and I saw from our windows was not the real river; for us, it was only a backdrop. Whereas for the people who lived in the towns below us, the river was a real entity because they experienced both its beauty and, when it flooded, its wrath. Living in an upper-class suburb and attending a private school across the river, I always felt distant from the people I lived around. But on the map, distance disappeared and my friends in other cities were only inches away. Over time, looking at maps became a way of reconnecting myself with places I no longer had any attachment to. Now living in a faraway city, bigger than anything Kentucky ever hinted at, a map of home has a grounding effect on my spirit. I can look at my map and say to myself, ‘This is where I am from,’ and then look at the skyscrapers out my window, ‘and that is where I am going.’

But the details are missing. Like Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we soon learn that no matter how systematic our understanding of the world, knowing where our home is and how to feel about it is far more difficult.

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe

As Things in Themselves

With a limited knowledge of the world around us, we fall back on empiricism and logic, on maps, to orient ourselves. I may look at the map and think, ‘This is my home, I know this place,’ but in truth I’m only familiar with a fraction of it and that knowledge slips away a little with each day I’m not there to see it change. At some point I have to put it down the map and just drive or walk or stand still and content myself with my own imperfect understanding of where I am. Sometimes it helps to get lost and wander around until I re-emerge in a familiar place. Repeating this process is the only way I can think to orient myself in relation to the real, physical things that surround me, rather than my coordinates. Perhaps by liberating the map from its previous uses I can begin to appreciate it for what it really is: an awkward, unwieldy shape, impossible to decipher.