Drawn to Maps, Pulled by Journeys

Bibliophiles flock to the lobby of the Monroe County Public Library on Tuesday mornings to bargain hunt, not book browse. Whether donated or scheduled for discard, the books stacked on mobile shelves and tables are for sale and priced to sell. Most volumes, conveniently shelved by category, go for under a dollar. One tantalizing tier of unsorted hardbacks, priced at 10 cents each, often holds surprises. I still savor the moment I slipped from the pile a first edition of Conrad Richter's "The Trees." Mine for one thin, glorious dime.

What I find as alluring as the books is a cart along the back wall with a box full of maps. Either the other patrons aren't that interested, or they recognize me as "the map lady" and stand aside when I beeline for that box. In any case, no matter how crowded the library, I almost never have to wait my turn to thumb through the week's offerings: National Geographic maps of every country and continent; highway maps; maps of the oceans; maps highlighting the flora, fauna, geology, or human history of regions near and far. Each week I exchange one or two dollars for a thick pile of them to pore over or store for future reference.

I own an atlas, and use it often; but my growing collection of folding maps illumine the world in greater detail and offer special perspectives. After my son and I rode the train from Washington, D.C., to New Haven, Conn., last year, we traced our route on a 10-cent map of the D.C.-to-Boston megalopolis. The flip side showed the corridor of roads and canals we would have used in 1830.

ANOTHER library-sale map featured California and contained an inset illustrating the subsurface geology of the San Andreas Fault. Throwing pennies to the wind, I allowed Tim to snip out the diagram to use on his science-project poster on the causes of earthquakes. Our in-home map library can potentially lend geographic focus to many a future school project - if Tim chooses his topics carefully. I have maps ready and waiting on the history and industry of the Great Lakes, world distributions of pinnipeds, glaciers of Mount Everest, Africa's threatened wildlife, ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, native American tribal territories ... even (casting focus aside) the history of Europe.

When my friends travel, I can sometimes provide materials to help them plan or reminisce over an itinerary. Parting with my maps of Central America and Hawaii, I stayed put, waiting for Indiana's spring.

It was my turn to take to the road over the last weekend in March, though. Tim and I left cows and chores and headed to the small historic river community of New Harmony, Ind., in the state's southwestern corner. Our close neighbor and friend, Gillian, and her young son Mark came along. As the two boys played on the banks of the Wabash, a stiff wind claimed Mark's cotton hat. It sailed out over the water and settled well out of reach. Then it began a slow drift south. It was, said Gill wistfully, a well-traveled hat, having shaded Mark's head over the years from the hot sun of her native Australia, as well as Indonesia and Florida. Now it was beginning a solo and uniquely American journey.

We four mused how the little hat might travel all the way to the ocean if it didn't snag or sink along the way. Tonight, I pulled out the appropriate resource (a AAA road map of the Southeastern United States), and Tim and I traced the path of the Wabash south to the Ohio river, and the Ohio's course west to Cairo, Ill., and the mighty Mississippi. Then on down to New Orleans, the broad delta, the wide and waiting Gulf.

It was a worthy exercise. But ultimately, even the finest of maps could not do the thing justice. What we will all remember is not the squiggly lines making and breaking state boundaries, but the startling way the hat took to the wind and cast its fate with the river's under a late March sun. And how, once it began to travel, its own blind journey so pulled at us all.

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