I can’t be alone in this perception, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else who clearly expresses it: I usually have a sense of where I am on the globe…yes, the globe. Places for me always have a context…a dot on a map in my mind. I grew up using paper maps, the kind that open and close in accordion style and lived in the glove compartment of cars. I collected world and continent and country maps from National Geographic; with the help of my father, I collected maps of all 50 states from gas stations, although some maps were available only as a group of states: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and DC, for instance. When I saw a map, I appreciated the exact place that it represented.
I used to plan trips on maps, tracing out the shortest or best routes along the bold black lines denoting super highways or the bold red lines showing state highways. I plotted ten different routes from my home to the Jersey shore. When I drive to the shore at night through the Pine Barrens, I get lost in the immediacy of the flat scrub-pine darkness around me even though I have a techincal image in my head of the arrow-straight Atlantic City Expressway cutting southeast across the state. Such night driving can be dreamlike, populated now and again by deer who pop up their heads in reaction to the light or I think that maybe the Jersey Devil will make an instantaneous appearance across my path in a flash through my headlights…but I know, too, exactly in reality where I am. In 8th grade, I took a bicycle hike to the Jersey shore with two friends; we avoided the highways and stayed on county roads and when we’d get to a main intersection, I could spread out the map and quickly find the place and say with authority, “We’re here!”
I know that when I visit Cape May Point and stand on the southernmost point of New Jersey, I can see and sense exactly where I am on the globe…the way that one can zoom in on Google Maps from a satellite view of the world, down to the United States, to New Jersey, then to the southernmost cape. I love to watch offshore the turbulence of the waters of the Delaware Bay as they crash into the waters of the Atlantic, current against current, and enjoy the riches at my feet of shells and seaglass that result from that crashing hundreds of yards from shore…in my head is a dreamy sense of the ocean and the bay and all they contain…yet I know that it’s my self standing at the tippy end of that teardrop of land.
I always sense the same sureness of place, but especially when the place is geographically unique. I sailed one evening from the southern Spanish port of Algeciras across the Mediterranean Sea to Tangier; for the two hours of the voyage, I had a sure sense of moving south of the Iberian peninsula across to the northwest coast of Africa…I could see it in my mind and understand my place on the globe. The next day, my friends and I ascended the Rock of Gibraltar and I could clearly see from its elevation what I had sensed on the boat: the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Africa beyond, and Spain and Europe behind me. Last year, I rode the train from Copenhagen to Malmo across the Øresund Bridge that spans the Baltic Sea…I saw in my mind’s map the expanse of sea between Denmark and Sweden, the North Sea stretching to the north and the Baltic spreading out to the east. I was soon enjoying a drink in a square in Malmo, looking at the St. Petri church tower built in 1380…again, I was lost in the immediate beauty of the place while technically I could sense my exact spot on the globe. I can often get lost, even though I know exactly where I am.