Geography is My Friend

IMG_20150114_151524Where am I? At my keyboard, in my house, town, state. Googlemap has a new satellite shot of my house, taken this summer. I can see the ramp we added in July. As much as I love maps, especially our modern paperless zoom-able variety, I’m relieved that the street view cameras haven’t captured my rural dead-end road. Before they come around, I’d like some notice so I can haul away the extra trash at the corner of the garage and take the weird pink tape off the front door we never use.

When I was about five, my father took me way up on a Pennsylvania mountain where we could look down upon Sinnamahoning, the town where we lived. I see now, on the internet map, that we had a steep climb, but I don’t remember the hike and can’t forget the view. It exactly matched the map on the wall at home. The highway, the river, the railroad tracks and bridges. Our house, our neighbors, the church, the school. I credit most of my extraordinary geographic skills to that childhood experience.

Not that I never get lost. Everyone does. But, unless I’m sick or starving or running late for something important, I enjoy being lost. I like the puzzle of locating myself and the satisfaction of learning to read the place I’ve landed. Having learned compass directions on the East Coast, I sometimes make an ingrained error, thinking “west is inland,” so I’m not the best person to give east/west instructions. But my place-finding skills are top-notch, and I pretty much always know exactly where I am. If I’ve been somewhere once, it’s stuck in my indelible brain-map.

Once, after attending a writing conference in Oregon, I got a ride to the Bay area with one of my fellow writers. About 25 miles north of Vallejo, I suddenly recognized a curve in the freeway, the shape of hillside, the lay of the land in every direction. “There’s a place up ahead where they sell hang-gliders,” I said. I’d been there once, fifteen years earlier. Sure enough, around that curve, we found hang-gliders.

This ability to ground helps when my mind flies to other places. I’m in my house –and also in a hot tub on Vashon Island, and driving an imaginary motorhome toward Bozeman, Montana. The winter of 1994, I lived in Pennsylvania, snowbound, with temperatures of -27 degrees, except that my writing transported me to the warmth of a Montana spring, driving the gray roads to Kentucky.

You can be outside a window looking in, or inside, wanting out. Sometimes you can just be the window, lost in your imagination. Everyone does it. As a bus driver, I once drove two elderly New Yorker ladies who’d just met. They were reminiscing madly about Radio Music Hall. At our destination, the grocery store, they looked up, amazed. “Where are we?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m at the Safeway on Telegraph Road in Bellingham, Washington, but you two are in New York City.”


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