As a tree hugger since childhood, the kind of kid who actually looked out the car window during road trips with his parents, before Game Boys and iPods and other gizmos stole all the scenery, I loved maps. And I still love them today as a writer and environmental educator. Maps help us investigate the ties between people and landscapes, how places shape who we are and how we in turn shape them.
Think about your life in terms of geography: What landscapes fill your memories? Where’s home? Is it your birthplace or new territory? What changes have you witnessed? What has stayed the same? What defines a place for you—its buildings and highways, fields and forests, waterways and wildlife? What about the customs of its people, their appearance, their accent?
Above all, do you feel tied to some places more than others? Why? If you were to draw a map of one of those places, what would stand out, something like that bridge in the photo above, which I’ve cherished for decades?
I’ve been thinking about American traditions. It’s nearly the Fourth of July, a time for family get-togethers and reminiscing, and I have an idea for you. This year, as you gather around the picnic table with folks you may not have seen in a while, grab an atlas and take turns pointing out the places you’ve called home or the ones that moved you during vacations or business trips. Share a memory or two about those places, their people, their culture, what you learned and felt there. Better yet, if you have an Internet-connected computer, try using Google Maps or download Google Earth. I use these resources frequently for writing, teaching, even during phone calls with faraway friends who talk about the Sierras or the Rockies or Central America. Every conversation is better with a map.
Recently, I’ve been working on essays about my childhood visits to southern Kentucky with my dad, Wendell Keith Muse, who passed away in 1998. In September 2010, before my wife Paula and I traveled from Indiana—my birthplace—to where Dad was born near the Tennessee border, I examined our route on Google Maps. It was a journey I’d made only a few times as a kid, though with the addition of Google’s satellite option, the adventure was reborn on my laptop computer. Before departing, Paula and I traced the route Dad and I had taken from Indianapolis, over the Ohio and through Louisville, then down I-65 past the leafy, canyon-carved patch of Mammoth Cave National Park. There, Paula and I would turn south onto Highway 90, pass through urban Glasgow, and head over the high ridge near tiny Beaumont, where Dad is buried and the satellite image shows a lush, deep-green landscape tumbling toward the ancient Cumberland—the river that carried Muses west.
The trip was soul-stirring, to say the least, for me as well as Paula, who never met my father. And you can travel with us now. Just pull up Google’s homepage and search for “Dubre, KY,” then click on the map and hit the satellite option. Scroll inward till you see Pitman Creek Road, which turns into Muse Road before petering out in tattered limestone. Look at the wrinkled terrain, the leaning barns and houses, the pastures that once held tobacco. My dad was born in this valley in June 1943, and he took me there in the seventies to play in Pitman Creek, as he visited with relatives like Aunt Ruby—my great aunt—and her son, James Whitlow.
In fact, it was Cousin James who welcomed Paula and me into his home one afternoon, after we surprised him at the edge of his driveway, our Subaru an oddity, no doubt. I hadn’t seen James since Dad’s funeral 12 years before, and as we stood beneath those sun-weary hills, the sky hazy from dust and heat, we talked not only about our family, but also about the landscape, about red soil that still holds my roots no matter how old I get. And I shook the hands of people who stopped by, including Odie Turner, my dad’s childhood friend. “You’re Keith’s boy,” he said. “I recognized you right off.”
Of course, Google Maps didn’t create that beautiful experience, but had I not zoomed in one morning in the summer of 2010, noticing a road named for my kin near the headwaters of Pitman Creek, I might not have visited. I would’ve missed a chance to know my father better, and my wife would have missed a chance to better understand her husband, his gaze always homeward, his heart not far behind. She wouldn’t have seen that little footbridge that captures my imagination still.
It’s like the old Wendell Berry quote: “If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.” Good advice for any of us. Learn your people. Learn your place.
Now it’s your turn. What can you discover on Google Maps? Investigate a landscape, a community, your family, or yourself. And if you’re up for it, please share a memory: If you were to draw a map of someplace important to you, what would stand out? Why?
Need inspiration? Check out Dinty W. Moore’s “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge: A Google Maps Essay.”
Photo: Meeting Odie Turner along Muse Road. PAULA OGDEN-MUSE