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"Whap!" The yardstick slapped the pull-down classroom map of the Americas: north, central, and south. At the front of the classroom, obscuring the green chalkboard when fully extended, the map's dimensions were huge. When the yardstick attack occurred, chalk dust scattered and students sneezed.

At 12 years old, my level of timidity in school had increased. The red-haired yardstick wielder intimidated me. I heard my name called, summoned for the mile walk to the front of the classroom. Nervous to the point of a burning scalp and moisturized hands more slippery than if I'd bathed in Vaseline Intensive Care lotion, I took the yardstick and pointed to the announced random location in South America.

"Are you sure?" she asked; the yardstick's tip quivered in my grip. I nodded. She raised her eyebrows. I shrugged my shoulders. "You're right. Sit down."

For several years, I was repulsed by these giant school maps. They represented intimidation, memories of shattered nerves, and fear of pop quizzes. I saw nothing of interest in maps, especially maps of foreign lands. As a ride-along passenger in my parents' car, I never looked at a map.

When I obtained my driver's license, I navigated by landmarks (turn right at the Catholic church), highway signs (turn left just across the railroad track on Highway 22), and instructions from a more knowledgeable co-pilot (we are going to keep straight for about five miles and then I'll tell you the next turn). I trusted the seat of my pants and friends; I did not consult a map.

A turning point came during the late 1960s. I was amazed to discover that maps could reveal exotic locations, iconic landmarks, dream destinations. By following typed clues and calculating distances to the next imaginary vacation paradise, my interest in cartography soared, especially as it related to vacation posters illustrating the eye-popping beauty of Tahiti, the Riviera, and the iconic nature of Casablanca.

A professor turned boring maps into treasure troves of excitement. Discovery became an obsession. Manila packets contained sets of instructions to find the location of Vesuvius and minuscule Greek fishing villages highlighted in Homer's The Odyssey. Curiosity joined challenge as puzzle pieces interlocked with my love for literature and beautiful scenery. For extra points, I could embellish the black-and-white outline maps with colored pencils.

With an artist's palate at the ready, I identified the River Kwai, snow-topped peaks of Kilimanjaro, plateaus and prairies, canals, and domestic and international seas. Purple mountains' majesty, amber waves of grain, shining seas unleashed creativity. To add a personal touch to the assignment, with inspiration from ancient cartologists whose works of art hang in museums, I sketched ships, sharks, and sea creatures onto the maps where oceans craved animation.

Before the arrival of self-service gas stations, I fell in love with state and regional U.S. maps. As attendants pumped gas and cleaned windshields, they distributed, at no charge, the most current state map folded by a predecessor of the Hungarian Rubik. Once spread like fabric for the cutting, I would smooth the map across the kitchen table, entertainment provided in tracing the route to the next vacation destination.

I recall a day I was practically sprawled across a map of the southern United States, including Texas. I'd been quiet for significant minutes.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Lookin' at the map."

"I thought you'd already figured it out. How many miles and how many hours to Dallas? It's a straight shot down I-30. What's taking you so long?"

"It's more than counting the miles. I'm looking at the way points and historic parks. Did you know that Mammoth Cave is in Kentucky?"

There's a significant sigh. "Dallas is not in Kentucky. What are you doing looking over in Kentucky?"

"The map needs to show how enormous that cave is, how it travels underground for many miles and at intense depths. I toured that cave but thought it was somewhere in West Virginia or Virginia. We were on a bus and got out when we were told to get out. This map needs some extra color."

A lengthier silence ensued.

These large maps, folded like a fat accordion along ironed creases, can be spread to reveal natural treasures. The most striking formation in the central U.S. is the mighty Mississippi River whose watershed spans what appears to be three-fourths of America's land. Called the Big Muddy because of the dirt, soil, silt, and mud it carries to its mouth at New Orleans, it is anything but pretty Carolina blue, its color on the map.

The confluence with the Ohio River should capture attention by contrast in color, the Mississippi in brown and the Ohio in green-blue, without the mud from thousands of acres of farmland.

These hand-held maps have at their core a cultural value along with personal memories and notes. In some cases, a family member might have added a distinct flair. Highway maps carried in glove boxes or seat pockets by adventuresome motorists will one day be collected like ancient sepia-toned maps and desk-top globes.

My penchant for discovery and love of the intricate brush strokes from God's artist's hand encourage me to see maps for their beauty and promised adventure near prominent land forms, all in ambient hues. Madame GPS and General Google Map are handy tools when forced to navigate within a city's limits, finding specific addresses of businesses, restaurants, or landmarks.

To me, the utility of a map pales when compared with its beauty. I'm the first to gaze at a map's unique qualities, spend hours discovering wayside parks and forests, captured by the imagined beauty of what lies ahead as we make the journey. I love to look at the map, but don't expect me to embrace its rudiments.

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Jane Gatewood writes regularly for the Clay County Times-Democrat and has contributed to Delta Crossroads regional magazine. She recently published a family history, The House on Harrison Street.

Editorial on 07/18/2019

Print Headline: Mapping it out

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