“Where in the universe are you?” my uncle would dig at me. I was the baby of the family, habitually carried and then led by hand, and I had earned a reputation for lacking direction. On one of our vacations to the Jersey Shore, he tasked me as navigator for each of his errands. I had to find the grocery store, and then the deli counter inside the grocery store. Where was the restaurant where we had made reservations? What was the best route to the beach? We were on a spit of sand that was too narrow to become lost upon. After I found our way to each destination, he would ask, “How did you get here?” and I would name the streets we had walked, which directions we had turned, how long it had taken to arrive.
The first methods of human navigation weren’t written or charted, but geographical. In the Bronze Age, the Minoans arranged their structures in accordance with the topography on the Island of Crete. One palace aligned with Mount Ida, another with Mount Juktas, and both were oriented along a North-South axis. On the mountaintops, the Minoans built sanctuaries in sequence with the rising sun’s equinoxes and particular stars: points they found to be constant, and therefore, significant to their civilization. We look for what is dependable in our landscapes to know what is consistent in ourselves.
On my first day of middle school, my gym teacher had me lead the class from the gymnasium to the cafeteria. I had come from a small country school with a class of eleven people. At the doors of the gymnasium, he asked me if we were supposed to turn left or right. I pointed to the right. The cafeteria was to the left. “I sure hope you don’t grow up to be a pilot or anything,” he chided. Ten days later, when the principal came on the intercom to say that a plane had crashed into a New York City skyscraper, I was sure that the collision was the fault of a pilot who had lost her way, somebody like me, who wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t that I didn’t take note of my surroundings, but simply that that I failed to arrange what I saw into some map that would lead me from point A to point B.
Although I was perpetually lost, I did know a few things. I knew the route that my parents drove from our house in the country to the grocery store, thirty minutes into town. I knew where the road changed from paved asphalt into gravel, signifying that we were almost to our door. I knew how to follow in the wake my older sister carved through the crowds at the mall, ever certain of her trajectory, as though she was some ferry tethered from one shore to the opposite bank. But even these elements had ways of rearranging themselves and confounding me. I would catch up to the person I thought was sister and find I had been following a stranger. I would fall asleep in the backseat on the way home, and wake up to find the trees outside thrashing in a rainstorm. The landscape had shifted and become unrecognizable. “Where are we?” I would ask my mother, thinking that perhaps we had changed course. “We are almost home,” she would tell me, even though outside my window there were no signs to indicate we were in familiar land.
The wobble of the Earth on its axis changes the position of the pole stars. Therefore, the points of navigation have shifted from age to age. At the sacrifice of poetic sentiment, we do not live under the same stars as our ancestors. Ancient maps no longer apply.
As a rule, people in my family have a good sense of direction. My father grew up hitchhiking his way first across southern California and then half of the North American continent. My mother, who was fascinated with maps as a teen, considered studying cartography in college. When we traveled, my older sister was the one who held our tickets, who knew the trains we had to take, the gate where our plane would depart. That uncle who made me find my way around the Jersey Shore claims that he is embedded with a sense of true North. Our last name indicates that we might be the descendants of Vikings, who could find their way across the ocean by hearing and touch and taste: the sound of waves breaking on the shore, the direction of the wind by its feel on the face. Some scholars say the Vikings could bring up samples of the seabed, and, by dabbing it on their tongues, determine whether there was fresh water nearby, flowing into the sea. My needle wobbles and wavers. In 2011, I moved briefly to Manhattan and became immediately lost. Each time the subway system sucked me in north of Central Park and spat me out in Brooklyn, I disembarked with no sense of how I had arrived. I would pull up Google maps and start walking, watching the needle on my phone creep forward block by block. This was no way to learn a city, but I was afraid, like the men who first crossed the Atlantic, thatI would somehow tumble disappear off the edge of everything. As a child I had agonized over the cover image on Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends; how far the one child leans over the edge, the pieces of gravel falling off into who-knows-what, the dog’s feet scrabbling for a hold. When I waited for the train, I became fixated on the subway tracks, certain that I would somehow fall in. That preoccupation with the platform’s edge made me feel like I had to run for my life, and I did. Cartography, like any obsession, is the process of ignoring everything except the one thing being mapped.
Despite the inaccuracies of early maps, they are rare to acknowledge their own uncertainties. The Babylonian’s Map of the World, which shows the city on the Euphrates with seven encircling islands, did mention seven “outer regions” beyond the encircling ocean, and an island “shrouded in darkness.” The map of Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman geographer, divided the world into five zones, and asserted that only two were inhabitable. There were overestimates and underestimates of the length of the Mediterranean Sea, the circumference of the earth, the best way to indicate North. Each cartographer corrects one another, each map a rewriting of the way the world is oriented, or what the map-maker believes ought to be. They contradict one another’s center, deciding, by turn, where the world begins: with Jerusalem, Turkey, Rome, Britain, Babylon, or America.
If I had been born into another time, I would have had to compensate for my broken internal compass. I would have had to carry a sextant on my person, or used a Sunstone to find the sun when clouds obstruct it. Fortunately, more than 99.9 percent of the maps that have ever existed were drawn in the last century. We are living in what the cartographer Denis Wood calls “the age of maps.” My movements are charted by satellite and recorded on my computer’s hard drive, so that I can pinpoint the coordinates of my life. I enable the function on my phone that allows me to be tracked. Despite the uneasy sense of surveillance, I want to be watched. I want to be found.
When I am homesick, sometimes I pull up a satellite image of the house where I grew up. The terrain, from above, is at first unrecognizable. Where is the sandbox? Where is the rope tree swing? But if I look for a few long minutes, the patterns begin to emerge. The blurry outline of the oak tree I begged my parents to save. The white trunk of the sycamore, which holds my obscured swing. The rectangular outline of the vegetable garden, now gone to fallow. Some figure in motion — my mother? My father? — stepping across the field. This map would mean nothing to some explorer who came upon it, and yet it is the center of my civilization. The unknowns are now not what is measurable, but the meaning of what we are measuring. I think this might be the last wilderness through which we have found no route.