This week's newspaper column

Maps are one of my favorite forms of literature. Or, perhaps they are art. The walls of my house are plastered with them. Maps are more pleasing to the eye than most art you can buy nowadays, and they often come in handy.

For years, my mother collected the maps out of the National Geographic. They accumulated in the dough box in the living room underneath the old magazines. I didn’t figure she’d miss them, so about fifteen years ago I stole them all and put them on the walls of my house.

I run to the maps when I am on the phone with somebody who has been traveling. It is fun to find out where they’ve been and figure out how they got there. I think I’ve used every map on the wall, including the one of Africa, in some phone conversation or another.

Reading a map revives memories of places one has traveled. A map can also stir one’s desire for adventure. More than once I have picked out a place on the map and traveled there just for fun.

I am intrigued by what lies north of us. If I weren’t so busy in the summer, I would like to drive around the north side of Lake Superior. I would like to see Hudson Bay. I have no idea what’s up there, and I would like to find out.

Our house was frequented by missionaries when I was a child, friends my mother and father made while in college and seminary. When the missionaries came to visit while on furlough, it wasn’t long after the supper dishes were cleared that Dad would pull the big world atlas off the shelf.

The maps inspired the missionaries to tell stories. This road is nothing but a mud trail. That city can only be reached by plane. This is the place where we were attacked by bandits. There is the lake where millions of flamingos gather each fall.

The maps inspired more interesting conversation than the missionary’s slide shows, which seemed more designed to demonstrate that they weren’t just having adventures but were actually converting the heathen.

My grandfather often spent the long winter evenings poring over the atlas. He and Grandma traveled widely in the western United States and Canada. He liked to retrace their steps on the map in his later years, telling stories about each place.

Last winter, I bought a huge map of Arizona. I have no wall big enough for it, so it sits in a tube in my office. When somebody comes along with a nifty town they’ve discovered there, I spread out the map and the conversation drifts lazily from place to place.

With the onset of winter here in Minnesota, I am starting to look at maps with greater interest. Let’s see, should I barrel straight down to Arizona where it’s warm and sunny, or should I take the long way around and see some new country?

Travel is work. I talk a lot about taking back roads and taking it slow--but in reality, I usually take the shortest and fastest route from point A to point B, eager to get where I am going and unpack.

Yet, the more I read the map, the more places I see off the beaten path that look like they might be worth a visit. If I do take the slow road, its because a map made me curious what the slow road would look like.

Maps are valuable, and not only as a way of finding one’s way around. As mundane as they may seem, maps can broaden one’s horizons and fire one’s imagination as effectively as a good book or an inspired work of music.