Edge of the Map
January
16, 2009

By Roger Emile Stouff

As a forty-something year-old man who is undoubtedly in the throes of his midlife crisis, I spend most of my time in pursuits that are the antithesis to the typical male.

Much of it involves maps.

Iíve always loved maps. They are mysterious, magical things. When I was a kid my grandparents had a monolithic world atlas, and Iíd lie on the floor with it, studying the multi-colored shapes on its pages. It was like traveling to exotic locales all by imagination. Closer to home, Iíd look at the blue splotches that were Lake Fausse Pointe and Grand Avoille Cove and Grand Lake, and slowly figure out where my dad and I went in the boat by guestimating the various points of trees we passed, canals and other landmarks. Dad always told me, when I was little, that we would be going fishing at the North Pole. He did this, you understand, to keep his blabber-mouthed kid from telling everyone where we caught all those bass and bluegill. I think I was 10 before I suddenly went, "Wait a minuteÖ"

Iím still in love with maps. The digital age has made this a seamless pursuit. Years ago, when I looked at maps in my grandparentsí atlas, I would always have to turn to the next page to see what was off the edge of the map I had just looked at. No matter how much I studied the terrain of the Andes, the vastness of the Sahara, it was the edges I was always drawn to, the mystery beyond them. Later, when I was grown and started collecting United State Geological Survey topographic maps, Iíd lay them out on the living room floor and delight over the enhanced detail no atlas could offer. Iíd put them edge-to edge, flow of the geography interrupted only by the white bordersÖyet six, seven, eight of them and I was left with edges for which I had no maps, thus no delving into the mystery.

Today itís different: On the screen of my computer, I can view the map of any locale in the world, and seamlessly pan any direction with no white borders to break up the continuity of the entirety of the earth. Wow! Iím like a kid again. In an age where many, many midlife-crisis-stricken men might be engaging in less then honorable pursuits, Iím following the Rapidan River through itís Appalachian terrain; looking at the craggy, haggard face of the Rockies in Glacier National Park in search of Otatsa Creek where I caught beautiful cutthroat trout, and squinting at Louisiana, looking for small streams that might be mere light blue lines on the green backdrop of the map.

Thereís impressive amounts of satellite imagery out there, and while I enjoy it, I still prefer my old topographic maps. I can see the elevation changes in the Louisiana hills, see where I climbed to 400 feet last year when we crested a hill near the stream. A mere bump compared to the Smokies, of course, but close enough to home to ponder over.

Now and then, the maps imbed themselves in my psyche and I dream of their longitude and latitude marks, their legends, their scales of distance. Maps are wondrous, really. Imagine if, in this day of technological wonders, instead you were crossing the Atlantic with only a rough, hand-drawn map and a sextant to navigate by. Imagine, being the explorers who traverse a new land and map it as they go. ImagineÖthat vast Louisiana territory that awaited exploration and mapping.

Okay, maybe Iím a little eccentric. Well, of course we all knew that already. But thereís times when the maps get to me, and I go and pull things out of boxes and cabinets and closets. My compass; my L.L. Bean canvas shoulder bag; more backpacks than any one man should own and never use, because I still havenít found the perfect one. A good pack must rest on the hips to distribute weight evenly, off the shoulders and back, and it must have a place for multi-piece fly rod tubes. And there are other things I havenít got yet that I have listed for future acquisition: Fire starters. First-aid kits. Snake-bite kits. That sort of thing.

I want to learn how to navigate. I want to learn how to find my way with map and compass. Though I love GPS technology and use it, the ability to travel and find oneís way with map and compass touches something deep inside. The explorer that I never could be has always wanted to learn that skill, so what better time than in the writherings of a midlife crisis?

We watched Into The Wild recently, and the tragic story of Christopher McCandless and his eventual death alone in an abandoned bus in Alaska still left me longing. I know what drove McCandless on his ill-fated journey. I know the stirring deep in the solar plexus that, unlike McCandless, Iíll never experience to survive.

Of particular fascination are the places were streams or rivers cross small country roads. I love such places. Thereís something magical about walking a small bridge over water. Now, Iím not talking that monstrosity in Luling, which makes me completely hysterical; no, Iím talking about such places as A.A. Milne must have known when he wrote, "Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known."

Itís one of the things I look for most, as a would-be fisherman of small streams. Places where small, out-of-the-way roads meet water. Not only does it provide access on public right-of-way to the streambed, but fish love bridges.

Have you ever been under a bridge over water? Itís not the same as a bridge crossing something terrestrial, like another road. Itís no wonder people used to think trolls lived under bridges: Thereís something unsettling but fascinating about the dark places under bridges, and when I fish near and under one, I get a feeling of transition, as if Iíve discovered some sort of temporal flux. Bridges, to be sure, are quite magical.

I can find my house on a map, and actually look at it through glass lenses orbiting high, high above my roof. Thatís cool as the dickens. I can find and look at with a birdís eye view exactly where I caught my first spotted bass. But itís almost too real. Too based in stark reality. Maps are more fun. Their icons and legends and lines and colors are the nutrition of imagination.

"Such places are in me, deep and sure, the vital map of my dreams and wishes, desires and recollections," Harry Middleton wrote.

Itís the off-roads and streams and vast empty places on the maps that reward the soul most, I think. Once explored, theyíre either worth going back to or not, but in the exploration there is always gratification.