Map lust

My name is Laurie, and I’m a cartaholic. Yes, cart as in cartography, maps, those foldy things you wrestle with in cars and end up jamming furiously into the glove box.

A couple years ago, Les Klinger and I were doing an event in Chicago, after which we planned on driving to the BoucherCon in Madison, Wisconsin. Les made the car reservations, since my mental state at the time rendered me barely competent to find the airport, and he asked them to include one of those GPS machines that tells you where it thinks you are and where you should be going. Les has one in his magic pod-car in LA as well, and although personally I think they’re far more dangerous than juggling with a cell phone (They’re positioned on the dash, so the driver has a tendency to stare at them, watching the pink line instead of the yellow lines. Not Les, of course; Les is A Careful Man.) and highly irritating to boot, who am I to get between a boy and his toys?

Without going into details of how may times it had us circling around while it recalculated our position, I shall merely say that a foldy sheet of paper would have been far less work.

But my cartoholia doesn’t really come into play with ordinary AAA maps, even those that make a stab at thematic rather than businesslike—the Four Corners map of the great Southwest has a flavor that comes through the most mundane of printing jobs. No, I save my great map passion for the United Kingdom. My heart belongs to OS.

Ordnance Survey: A shiver runs down my back at the mere thought. We just don’t have these works of art here in the US of A, although occasionally you can hunt down geological survey maps of Yosemite and such. But in the UK, the high street stationers’ or corner bookshop carries local OS maps, often in two sizes. There used to be a Blackwells Travel Shop on Broad Street in Oxford (now, alas, moved into Virtualland) where the drooling cartaholic could rub shoulders with the casual traveler and find not only 1:50,000 maps, which show an airplane’s-eye view of the land below, but (ah, the craving!) a 1:25,000 map of, say, Dartmoor or the Sussex Downs, in which individual houses appear as black squares, prehistoric monuments are precisely shown, and the all-important Public Footpaths are nailed down without fear of argument with the local farmer.

And now I’m assembling my OS maps for The Language of Bees. The other day a new one (1:50,000, but still a wealth of information and flavor) of the final site in the book dropped into my hands (and no, I’m not going to tell you the location) and I spent a solid hour in close examination of the dips and hollows, the monuments and towns. This one is not historical, but the land doesn’t change. I hope, hope to get there in June, to transform the cartographer’s marks into a landscape.

In the meantime, I live there on paper.

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  1. Strawberry Curls on April 8, 2008 at 11:20 am

    This brought back some fun memories from last summer when a friend and I drove from London to Alnwick with a side trip to Lincoln. Our rental car had an in dash GPS system that we dubbed “Sheila.” She was more than a bit bossy and when we missed a turn off (it only happened a few times) from one of the seemingly millions of diabolical turnabouts (traffic circles) she would tells us to make a legal U turn at the next convenient locations and would begin to become a bit strident when we didn’t follow her advice in the time she though correct.

    My favorite memory, though, was the time she had us turn off the “A” road we were traveling and head out into the countryside, turning down smaller and smaller roads and tracks. We ended up going down a narrow one-car-width road with hedgerows and sheep in the fields that was so quintessentially English we felt we might run into Russell or Holmes around each curve. Both of us were quite sure she was leading us astray, but the countryside was so beautiful, even in the rain, that we just kept driving. Finally Sheila had us turn down a mud path and wanted us to turn into a private driveway proudly announcing we had arrived. Both of us dissolved into uncontrolled giggles as we were definitely not “there.” When we regain our composure we backtracked and used our map to find our destination. That little escapade was probable the fault of the programmer (me) as I must have punched in the wrong postal code. We both have very fond memories of Sheila and her slight lisp that seemed to become more pronounced when we didn’t follow her directions.

  2. nkk1969 on April 8, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    GPS units? GRRRRR. Don’t get me started. The DH wants one. I have repeatedly explained it would be a waste of money for us. We have a system–he drives, I navigate. As he never leaves Huntington (much less the state of WV) without me, we have no need for a GPS system.

    Map reading is almost a lost art thanks to GPS units and in-car DVDs. What was there to do when we were kids on long car trips? My dad handed me a map and told me to find where we were and how long it would take to get to the next major city. He must have known he was going to die a premature death. He always stressed the importance of me learning to handle the map. He said if anything ever happened to him my mother would be stuck at home because she had no sense of direction and could not read a map. He was right. He died when I was 9 and Mom got lost in shopping centers without me.

    Sadly enough, I am making the trip to Detroit with the child who takes after her father when it comes to maps and directions. The Grammar Goddess got lost going to the movie theater the other night. If her brother hadn’t been in the car with her, she’d have come straight home. I told her she has a choice to make, either become thoroughly familiar with the map of the greater Detroit area or drive in big city traffic. She gave me the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.

    Pray (or if you’re not religiously inclined, send good vibes) for us next week while we’re on the way to Michigan. Ms. King, if we don’t see you there, you’ll know why. [laughing, sighing, and rolling eyes]

  3. annie on April 8, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    This story can only be appreciated by those who know English geography & culture:
    Earl Spencer’s daughter wanted to attend the Easter Monday football match at her beloved Chelsea’s home ground – Stamford Bridge in West London, having like a good daughter of nobility, spent Easter at the ancestral home, Althorp. The chauffeur plugged it into the GPS and the dear girl didn’t notice that they were heading, much like Strawberry Curls, through the byways of Lincolnshire, to the ancient Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire, site of Harold’s last victory before he went south to Hastings and got it all wrong.
    I don’t suppose one of our beautiful OS maps would help if you’ve got the wrong Stamford Bridge, and the wrong battle!

  4. ruthie on April 8, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    ah maps – the excitement of buying a new one for a holiday, and the disappointment as yet another one turns to papier mache in the English summer.
    I love maps.
    They talk to me.
    They tell me of footpaths, of hills and of views.

    Unfortunately they are meaningless colours on a piece of paper to my husband, a fact that the rest of my family appear to have ignored. So the day we went out as 3 parties to meet at an asigned place he was given the map, which meant no-one knew where they were. Except me, and I then spent the next hour rounding them up by car.

    His most impressive feat todate is losing Milton Keynes – and people in England will know how difficult that is to achieve!

  5. KarenB on April 8, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Maps! I love them, yes, I do! Maps in the car, maps in books, maps on shelves, maps, maps, maps!

    My little ode to maps. I admit to having a family in which we give each other maps for presents and then wrestle them away from each other or squeeze in next to each other to pore over them and envision far away places. I have vivid memories of visiting colleges, lo these many years ago, with mother and grandmother and being entrusted with the maps as my grandmother (blessed be her memory) was gifted with the ability to get infallibly lost when holding a map. Fortunately, that gene skipped me!

  6. Real Icon on April 9, 2008 at 8:12 am

    Ah. A kindred spirit. I am one of those persons who love “The Moor” already for its very beginning. I couldn’t live without maps. Wherever I go, no matter what places I visit, if I am there for more than twenty minutes, I must go and get a map. I love sitting next to the driver with a map on my lap, knowing exactly where I am in this universe, knowing where I am coming from and where I am going.

  7. Teresa on April 9, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Oh, Laurie, I suspected you were a map lover when I read The Moor. I too am one who could let whole afternoons slip by in contemplation of a good topo map or even a Rand McNally atlas, train map or CORRECTED Mapquest printout. I’m always the navigator on any car trip, and I have to know the route of any train I’m on. I draw my own maps too (directions to houses, places to meet up, i.e.).

    And I’m looking forward to more cartaphilia in the new one [since I infer from your post that there’ll be some].


  8. Megs on April 9, 2008 at 7:27 pm


    I love how map competent your characters are. I enjoy maps, but somehow, when they’re in a moving vehicle, they become suddenly incomprehensible.

    Does anyone else read Strange Maps? It’s a blog that collects odd and unusual maps.

  9. QuickstepQueen on April 10, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Annie, I spent much of my early life thinking Stamford bridge was an actual bridge! Much to the disgust of my brother! I do quite like GPS but having travelled round Birmingham with it sending me down side streets and round the ring road a thousand times, I have issues!
    Oh and just to make you map lovers jealous…I work in an archives where I get to handle original maps with beautiful illustrations and deeds (occasionally) to match…I do quite often get lost for hours…

  10. barbara on April 11, 2008 at 5:10 am

    There seem to be a lot of us out here! My regular Easter present to my husband is an OS map of where we are going in the summer. He gives me chocolate, but I get to read the maps, too!

    If you are coming to the UK this summer, I live in South London between the boat race and the tennis, and would love to show you some of old London on a walk if you have time – or just buy you lunch!

  11. nelle on April 11, 2008 at 9:54 am

    Timely for me. I spent too much time yesterday following links from this site – – which is a map blog. I’m intrigued with maps in art, and the blog has a great many links to that.

    Right now, the city of Baltimore is having a celebration of maps and having exhibitions and events about maps. They also have a series on youtube –

    Let me tell you one simple way to put more maps in your house. Get the little peel-off magnets at the craft store. Grab some old maps at the library sale. Cut out the parts that mean something to you. Attach to the magnets. Put on the fridge. Now, the fridge is a colorful reminder of the places I’ve lived, from Kaktovik, Alaska to Taupo, New Zealand; Hillsboro, Ks! Chicago! Seattle! Washington, D.C!! Wichita! Lincoln! Soon to be Butte, Montana!

    Can you tell I’ve been waiting for an audience?

    I will also include a list of books that I’m reading these days on the subject (I love how walking and maps keep overlapping):

    London: A Life in Maps – Peter Whitfield (gorgeous illustrated history with maps)

    The Power of Maps – Denis Wood (on mapmaker’s bias)

    The Map That Changed The World – Simon Winchester (the story of the beautiful hand painted map that William Smith put together of the geological British Islands – early 1800’s)

    You Are Here – Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination – Katharine Harmon (art and maps intermingle)

    Maps Are Territories; Science is an Atlas – David Turnbull (How do maps reflect the culture? Includes Aboriginal “mapping” from Australia)

    Psychogeography – Will Self, illustrated by Ralph Steadman (a bit wacky and supercharged prose, exploring the connection between psyche and place. Long distance walking included.)

    Finally, not exactly mapping, but…..A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit. Read, particularly, the final essay in the book, “One-Story House.”

  12. admin on April 11, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Yes, megs, Strange Maps is a great site–

    And thanks, Nelle, for giving me so much else to do than what I should be doing. Really, thanks. So much. (But, love that Solnit book.)

  13. nelle on April 11, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Ah, admin. Sorry. Print the list for the next time you are down. Can you tell I was down with the flu for six, yes I mean six, weeks this winter? If I had the gift, I should have written a book. As it was, I meandered about while in my bed. So, the list is for the others for now….mea culpa….

  14. annmaus on April 11, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Perhaps this name has been mentioned already: Adrien Brody, Sherlock Holmes for the movies based on the books by Laurie R. King. Perfection!

    Russell should be portrayed by the model for the book covers, whoever she is, if she’s a real person. Russell should NOT be played by a well-known actress. Someone well-known would bring their baggage and history to the part. Excepting, of course, Cate Blanchett.

    I’ve obviously given a great deal of thought to the cast of the movies 🙂

    There WILL be movies, yes?
    There MUST be!!!

  15. bani on April 13, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Cate Blanchett is never never wrong.

    I just wanted to say that this map post reminded me of Bill Brysons “A Walk In The Woods”, which includes a lot of ranting about useless Appalachian Trail maps and fond memories of Ordnance Survey maps. I mean, the post itself is nothing like the book, obviously. It was the topic that twigged the memory. You know what I mean. Anway, I recommend the book.

  16. Poodlerat on April 14, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    I’ve never been to England or seen an OS, but I still remember the thrill of seeing maps of Toronto that showed my house as a little black square. Especially the ones from the 1920s and 30s.

    Like many other members of my family, I am addicted to maps and atlases!

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