Off the map

Warning: this post is not simply lost, it is off the map and it remains so throughout. If you like a nice tight narrative, abandon ship now.

In these days of sat nav and GPS on phones, you’d think it impossible to do… actually with a lack of forward planning and general ignorance – it’s quite easy. I’ve done it twice in the last few years, once in London, a city I know so well that my familiarity bred contempt on that one occasion, and once last week when I ended up off the small tourist map of the area in France. On both occasions, my sense of direction, which is usually quite good, completely deserted me and with it being night in London (no stars) and grey and overcast in France (no sun) there were no natural clues to help me.

It’s an interesting experience to reflect on: not being lost, that’s different and I don’t mind that too much, but being ‘off the map’ is enough to quickly provoke an existential crisis in me. The difference? Well being lost, is merely a matter of locating oneself on the map, and given enough time, that can always be done – I experienced that in the Caribbean as I insisted on driving over a mountain range to the north of the island on unmade roads. My sister as passenger was unhappy, we were LOST. She was right, we were lost, but we were still somewhere on the map. Sure, the map was poor, with little detail, but with the mountains and the sun in the sky to guide us it was only a matter of time before we popped up on the map again. It took a few hours, but we did.

Now, being off the map, the maps you have in your head or hand at any given moment, and being pointed in any direction, you know not where, that’s completely different to being lost on the map. It makes me feel a strange mixture of rising panic, freedom and desperation to get back on the map. It’s a feeling, there’s no word for in English, perhaps there’s one in German. It’s a feeling I despise in myself. Can I only feel free on a map? If everything is already mapped are there no new ideas, ever? But if there are still some uncharted territories somewhere, if I can’t get off the map for a while and explore, how will I ever find them? Help. Now I am lost.

These overwhelming feelings when I am temporarily off the map indicate I am not who I hoped I was: a little intrepid and brave, sometimes fearless. The feelings tell me I always want to know where I am in the world… at all times: where I am in the vicinity, which way I am facing, where I am going. On each of the occasions I was physically off the map, one of the first things I did when I found myself again was consult a map that covered the areas to check where I had been. I had to know what the off the map experience looked like, on the map. Even though I had just been there, as if a map would give me any more detail about the actual experience of driving along French roads or sitting on a wall somewhere in Kensington. Why does the cartographical detail matter after the event? I don’t know. Maybe I am a mad egotist who cannot bear not to know where she is in the world at any given time. The question it begs, not you, but me, is: what an earth would have I been like before the whole of the world was committed to charts and paper. Would I have been a flat earther, still brave enough to hop on a ship and sail off to the edge of the world? Would I have been able to surmise that India was round the globe somewhere and sail off confidently in the wrong direction? Is ignorance truly bliss; is a little information a dangerous thing? What the hell is it with me and maps. I just don’t know.

On both occasions when I was off the map, it turned out I had been heading in the complete opposite direction I had intended to. This is obvious in hindsight. The mix of feelings it creates is not. So what? Just turn round, retrace your steps, you idiot! No-one need ever know your mistake. But I have always had a natural aversion to doing this, preferring to press on, hoping to see something worthwhile, whilst angsting about never getting back on the map. So I panic about my existence no longer being charted, but I refuse to turn round.

Hopeless. Call me the Bellman. I don’t suppose this makes the least bit of sense to anyone else, but in the writing of this post I am starting to realise that the process is another version of being off the mental map; another refusal to retrace my steps to a known point. I’d rather be there in many ways, writing something intelligible, or entertaining, but I can’t – I am compelled to tramp forwards into headspaces I have never been to before, for which I have no sat nav.


Posted on August 16, 2012, in Be not idle, Travel, Words and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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