I grew up a map fiend. No, this is not a statement of my spiritual status, but instead a proclamation of an abiding interest in maps. When I was a kid, we got many maps through National Geographic Magazine, which tended to include one about every other monthly issue or so. I pored over those maps and practically memorized the explanatory notes that came on them. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was a note about the legal status of the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that ultimately led me to taking a vacation there over a decade ago.
And then I added almanacs to my map study. To those who don’t know them, American almanacs in my youth were these thick volumes running hundreds of pages, packed full of information. Much of this was general-purpose reference information, covering everything from copies of the Constitution to a list of all the times major league baseball franchises had moved (a much shorter list in those days). And then there was the section on the nations of the world, with accompanying color inserts of all their flags and maps of each continent.
So I kept current with political developments, which led to one of the more amusing quirks of my childhood. I would examine maps and globes, and proudly announce how many “mistakes” they had, because they were out of date. People remember me for this.
I also took over reading road maps and providing navigation for our family when we went on vacations. My mother couldn’t read a map. My father would often wait until the last moment to give my mother directions, which would cause her to make the wrong turn. So I took over. It became an excellent experience in developing patience and planning skills. Not only did I have to mark out a route, I had to adjust it if my mother should happen to make a wrong turn despite my directions.
Not long after that began, my father let me use his copy of The Literary Digest 1927 ATLAS of the WORLD and GAZETTEER. Colonial empires, territories and boundaries subject to plebiscites, vanished kingdoms, mysterious vassal states, names that had changed for one reason or other . . . oh, I was in seventh heaven, let me tell you. I had so many, many questions that required trips to our (outdated) encyclopedia, not to mention bedeviling the staff of the public library in town. So my study of maps grew from geography to history.
Well, I grew up, and my appreciation of maps grew with me. And they could still set off all sorts of questions, and sometimes interesting quests that ran far from the library (or these days the Internet). For example, back in 1987, eastern Massachusetts was divided into two area codes for phone numbers. To explain this, the phone company put out a map, overlaying the area code boundaries with the municipal boundaries within the state. I took a look at that map, and realized that although I had lived almost my entire life in Massachusetts, there were still many towns I’d never set foot in.
So I decided to embark on a quest to visit every single city and town in the state. There are 351 of them. I had to make rules. Traveling through on a superhighway didn’t count. If possible, I had to find the town/city center, which for some towns is a challenge. That’s why I bought street maps of every municipality in the state, to find my way through and between towns, especially towns without state highways. (Yeah, today people would use GPS.) Complicating matters, several towns are on islands. So it took me until 1994 to finish, which I did by taking a ferry to the island of Cuttyhunk, part of the town of Gosnold.
My girlfriend, then and now, was with me on that trip. She’s quite proud of helping me finish the set. And she allowed me to talk her into that Baltic trip, another result of my map fascination. What can I say? Nerds of a feather.