Share this article

print logo

Curl up with a good map on a cold, winter day

Cabin fever is for other people. Of course, some of these days are short and often dreary. Of course, wind-blown snow and sleet sometimes make even venturing outside painful. But who cares? Those are the days when I have time to myself, when I can curl up in a chair with a blanket and read for an hour or two.

I certainly enjoy reading mysteries, especially those of Kate Atkinson and Ian Rankin. And I enjoy reading "popular" math and science books like those of Ian Stewart and Martin Gardner.

But most of all, I enjoy simply looking at maps. I can spend a half hour studying the AAA map, "New York State: Western Region" -- not with any special purpose and certainly not to impress anyone with my knowledge. I can't: I may learn where the Village of Ceres is, but I will forget where it is five minutes later.

But a single map is just a start. Atlases are what I love most. Atlases have a kind of heft that individual maps lack. One of mine, "The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book," has page after page showing exactly the same HOMES lakes, but each map provides different information about land use, fisheries, waterborne commerce, recreation and industries.

A different kind of atlas is "The Civil War: The West Point Atlas of War." As I reread the first volume of Ulysses S. Grant's autobiography, I followed his battles with it.

But my real prize is my "Oxford Atlas of the World," which contains enough information to satisfy me for the remainder of my life. Everything about this book is high quality: its paper, its type fonts, its colors. No book of this size, printed in such detail, can be free of errors, but I trust what I find in it implicitly. My recent edition now has satellite maps as well, maps that provide remarkable detail yet at the same time show the earth's curvature in the distance.

Computer software provides all of this as well. I like Google Earth very much, but in no way does it measure up for me to my "Oxford Atlas."

As it happens, I know the genesis of my love for maps. It started in fourth grade. Our classroom had a handsome, large jigsaw puzzle with the states as pieces. We timed each other to see who could complete it fastest. In doing so we gained a kinesthetic feel for the states: the size of Texas, the odd shape of Idaho and Maryland, the tiny states along our Northeastern coast.

What brought all of this into focus for me was a book called to my attention by Malcolm Nelson of the College at Fredonia. Mac is another map enthusiast: I've written before about his delightful book about one of our nation's highways, "Twenty West."

The book he recommended is "Maphead" by Ken Jennings. Jennings is without a doubt our nation's most famous nerd -- he's the guy who won at "Jeopardy" for so many months. I didn't consider that a great background for an author, but I soon found that I was wrong. This is an excellent book.

There is almost everything in Jennings' book about maps and mapping that you can think of. From the remarkably similar shapes of Wisconsin and Tanzania to the geocaches in your immediate neighborhood. And there are thousands of great stories here: like the famous response by South Carolina's Caite Upton in the Teen USA contest when asked why a fifth of Americans can't locate the United States on a world map.

But my favorite chapter, titled "Meanders," is about listers. How many countries have you visited? (The Travelers' Century Club lists 319; my personal count is 12.) How many high points have you climbed to? Interestingly, although he does mention the Four Corners Monument, where four states meet, Jennings doesn't mention listing points where three states meet like the New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey point, the hobby of my esteemed friend, Jack Baker.