Monday, June 25, 2012

Maps of worlds

My first love was the big fictional map on the wall of my third-grade classroom.

You remember. That one with every single geological formation worked into it, sea to cape, bay to coast, mountains, hills, rivers, lakes and ponds connected by dirt or paved roads. One city, one town, one rural village, one farm with cows grazing. An isolated cabin. I passed many math classes wracking my brain where I'd choose to live in that safe, imaginary place. The beach cottage by the ocean like that one on Cape Cod where we'd stayed? The cozy log house in the pines? The farm? Or the distant ranch on the mesa, near the butte?

I had a weakness for the ranch.

I ached for the wide horizon of a ranch in Montana. I wanted fences to ride, cows and horses to herd, rodeos to compete in, races and shows and wild broncs to tame. That ranch was where most of my model-horses-and-Johnny-West figures lived when I was eight, nine, ten, eleven years old. Along with a few Skippers and a G.I.Joe named Ted. Never one single Barbie. This wasn't about clothes or boyfriends; it was about sweat, the smell of horses and the wind on your face as you galloped across the prairie.

During those years I acquired a peculiar skill that I still have: the ability to survey a room and immediately assess it as landscape the way I would have at age nine.

With a Skipper or one of Johnny West's offspring astride a horse--say, Thunderbolt, the mild-mannered palomino that was the first model horse I got for Christmas just before I turned three, now battered and standing on my shelf--or Bilbo, the Breyer buckskin quarter horse with molded-on halter--I'd scrutinize the terrain. Rugs were dirt, prairie or pasture underfoot; a wooden floor or linoleum was water, maybe only a stream, maybe a deep lake. Sofas and chairs were hills, buttes, mesas. The mantel-piece was a high, dangerous ledge on a mountain cliff.

An assignment in fifth grade: draw a dream estate to scale with a detailed key. My ranch had barns and pastures for all my horses, tack rooms, hayfields and ponds to ride into bareback. My friends pointed out their impressive servant quarters; I was content with hired hands who lived in bunk houses.

My yard in the Boston suburbs was the outer pastures of the ranch. Behind was a wilderness of woods with a spring and running stream where my ranch people often camped and built shelters from My Side of the Mountain. When I was twelve the trees were bulldozed and the stream was captured in a culvert. It was exciting and terrible to see the land tamed; I thought of it as thousands of acres fenced off and sold as smaller ranches.

I didn't know that was what was happening to the real West.

In high school after my own personal disaster, I was desperate to disappear from the face of the known earth. I created water-color islands painted on brown paper, scrawled across with illegible ink runes. The maps were distressed, wrinkled and creased, wax dripped and hardened on the edges, implying late nights spent scouring it in search of a secret, a hidden meaning.

At nineteen, I spent one of the best summers of my life with a map. I taught riding at a camp in New Hampshire and took along my appaloosa mare, Singer. (Her "filly" Rindle eats hay outside my window tonight, twenty-eight years old, as I type.) My friend Joy and I one-upped the "overnight ride" by charting and organizing a "three-day ride" for a handful of older kids. That summer I swatted deer flies on the sweaty neck of my horse and rode with a folded map jammed into my back pocket, following the spidery lines of a geological survey map:logging roads, jeep trails.

These days, I ask Google maps to print driving directions for the fellow I work for. Personally, I take the all-knowing Google's wisdom with a grain of salt. More than once I plodded my horse down a remote dirt road hemmed-in by honeysuckle only to meet a shiny car creeping along. The driver always pleaded,"But it was on the directions..."

But I love to play with Google satellite maps. I can zoom into this part of the country: New York state, as far west as I ever made it. Zoom closer, recalibrate and descend even nearer. I can get an idea of the date the image was taken by the houses or ponds that have or haven't yet been built locally.

Today I wondered. If I zoom into Google's Montana, might I eventually old neighborhood? The roof of my square house? The yard with the trees, the swing, the space-trolley, the woods and stream? If I zoom close enough could I find the rugged Montana terrain of my living room?

Be careful when you download those maps. They might be dangerous. Follow them and there's no telling where you might end up.

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