They’d come from all over the neighborhood, the adults would. And they’d gape in awe, confusion and perhaps skepticism at what they saw in my driveway: Impeccably detailed, wildly accurate chalk drawings.
But these were neither sketches of animals, nor facial portraits nor landscape vistas nor still-life representations. No, they were maps. Cartography as concrete art.
Picasso de Gama.
The East Coast Highway system, a route from Buffalo to Tampa, staked in carbon underneath the cars. In striking resemblance to the real thing.
And the artist was in first grade.
The artist was me.
Over the course of four summers between the ages of five and ten, I probably spent thousands of daylight hours drawing roads and routes in chalk. Streetplans of Niagara Falls and Buffalo, routes from home to various places I’d visited like Toronto and Tampa, Alabama and Philadelphia.
Washington State by the landscaping, Maine by the porch, California near the basketball hoop and the Florida Keys by the cracks in the concrete. Landmarks, capitals, markers. All there for all to see. But to find out what compelled a kid who you couldn’t even trust with a remote control car to suddenly become the Elementary School Atlas, we need to go back further. We need to run the TripTik in reverse.
I’m not 100% sure I am smart. I honestly don’t know. I can only remember that for as long as my memory’s existed, I’ve been told I was smart. And if you hear anything often enough for long enough, you’re bound to believe it.
Yes, there’s qualitative evidence to suggest I’m reasonably bright. My IQ’s been scored (at various points in my life, when I was 12, 19 and 21) in the 140s. I could read before I entered pre-school. I could do algebra in second grade. I was a peerless speller, and an almanac with both a photographic memory AND perfect pitch. I knew every state capital at 6. I read about quarks and other sub-atomic particles at age 7. I knew every planet in the solar system, all their moons and how far from the sun they were by 8. I could name all the presidents in order, and what years they served, at 9. School came easy, and it was a nuclear missile crisis when I would occasionally score ONLY in the 98th percentile on a standardized test.
Why the fanfare over my perceived mental skills and curiosities? Because I’m trying to tell you none of it was an effort, or a talent, or even an interest. I never considered myself to be smart, and, despite learning to read early, I was somehow placed in remedial English in elementary school and probably don’t even know how to turn an iPad on. It was just a thing – a compulsion. I had to know. And when I had to know … I knew.
Also, I am deadly with dates and numbers. I can still get into the garage at my friend’s old house on Krueger Road (the passcode for the opener is 4265, try it!), and I still remember my first day of first grade (September 7, 1988).
But although some of that partially explains the “how” … none of it explains the “why”: why maps? Why would I spend hours … alone … completely enthralled … creating supposed masterworks that were merely solid and dotted lines arranged geographically on a driveway? Why would I try to reason and forge a way from Niagara Falls, New York to Los Angeles, CA using nothing more than my own childhood guesswork? To find that answer, we need to get in the car for a ride:
On July 20, 1987 (I was four years old and see I told you I was ridiculous with dates), my family got into the car and drove from our home down to Madison, Alabama. Along the way, we traversed the 90 (people from my part of the world have an obnoxious habit of inserting the definite article “The” before highway numbers – The 90, The 190, The 290 – seriously, talk to anyone from the 716 and ask them how to get to Canada), the 77, the 71 and the 65. I didn’t have to bother looking it up. Along the way, we passed through Erie, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville and Nashville.
Scientists postulate that our first memories are often amplified because they frame how we measure future similar memories against them. Well, maybe they do. I’m guessing again. (Which is different from lying, right?) Well, this was my first major road trip. And it also happened to be the first thing I remember first-hand, without video playback. I can still recall the dingy hotel we stayed in on our way down and the brown paneling on the door. As we meandered down through America’s frontier-land, I checked the map. We were headed southwest, then south, then southwest, then south again. These words meant very little to me, but I knew one thing: We’d be in the car awhile.
I documented our journey via, of all things, Etch-a-Sketch: Roads were easy to draw on Etch-a-Sketch, because they were just lines. I didn’t need a whole lot of artistic skill or nuance to create a sort of representation of where we were headed. Of course, at that age, I didn’t know the definition of artistic skill. I probably thought I was good at art, too. I could draw a mean fish.
When we had gotten down to Alabama, and I enrolled in Kindergarten – here again is where I come riding in on my intelligence high horse, as apparently my birthday, October 3, was one day beyond the cut-off for enrolling kids in Kindergarten for that year, but my Mom and Dad petitioned the State Government in Alabama to allow me into Kindergarten early anyway (with Miss Clem, who had a horrific accent that caused me to miss my name being called in attendance and led me to believe my name’d been changed to “Joanie”) because I was supposedly sufficiently capable of succeeding in school (I assume they meant academically) – and spent most of my time alone at lunch and recess.
During those times, we’d go outside in the warm autumn air and I’d spend my time trying to recreate my journey from my first home to my next home in as great detail as I could. I don’t know if I had missed Western New York (it is hard to argue that I did, when you’re 5 I find it hard to believe one could truly miss anything, though I’m sure it could be sufficiently stated that I grew to miss my toys and my stuffed animals and the like), or if I was just obsessed with the trip (I hesitate to use the word traumatized because, unfortunately, I don’t remember how I felt in the car, only that I definitely felt something in the car) and enthralled that places so disparate could be drawn together so quickly over the course of life experience.
While in Alabama, I do remember we took two decent-sized road trips.
The first was to Knoxville, TN (The 59 to The 75), where we listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album in the car and where I slept on a plaid pull-out bed at night.
The second was to Treasure Island, FL (The 65 to till Montgomery, then through a non-highway abyss of behemoth backwoods and hillbilly hell until TA-DA! Welcome to Tallahassee! Then the 10 to the 75, over a creepy causeway to the peninsula and over another final bridge to Gulf Boulevard and yes I know exactly where on that Boulevard we stayed and no I am not telling you).
And I kept a log of these. And when I started playing outside again after a frosty winter, I had a greater wealth of material on which to draw.
On May 4, 1988, my mom picked me up early from Kindergarten and placed me in the car. “Come on, sweetie, we’re going home.”
But we did not take the bus route home. I did not recognize this new way. Then we reached the 65, and I realized home was not home anymore.
I can’t recall if I was able to piece together that I had left Kindergarten three weeks early, or that I’d never see anyone in Alabama ever again. I am not 100% sure I cared or even noticed. I don’t even know what conclusion I could draw to any sense of satisfaction. But I knew that route, and I knew we’d be taking it again.
Up through Nashville and Louisville. A rest for the night.
Do not ask me why I know this, but I remember waking up after dawn in the car, with my father driving through the hills and this beautiful, pristine sunlight burst through the windshield and a great skyline enveloped far off into the distance, like Oz.
I was moved but unable to speak anything but my usual curious query. “Dad! Where ARE we?”
My dad replied, “Covington, Kentucky.”
It is, to date, the only reason I am aware of Covington, Kentucky and it is, to date, the fourth town I came name in that state after Louisville, Lexington and Frankfurt.
I cannot name any others. (I believe Sparta is also located there, because I do believe a NASCAR track exists in that hamlet. This is purely speculation as I do not active follow NASCAR.)
“Dad!” I continued, staring off into the distance at those looming towers. “What is THAT?” (Man, you’d think I saw God.)
My Dad replied, “Cincinnati.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “Isn’t that in Ohio?”
My Dad was probably perplexed not only by my geographical knowledge, but also my interest in it.
“Yes it is.”
I, ever the impatient one, “When will we be there?”
And my Dad humored me, “Oh, about 10 minutes or so.”
Now, I have no idea why, but I was SO. JACKED. to go to cross state lines into (of all states) Ohio. And when we hit that bridge and I saw that sign I knew we were in this big, bright beautiful city and we were on our way home and look I have no idea why I am even telling you this. I was five. Chalk it up to exuberance and naivete.
The next question I remember asking was after a long nap. It was dark now and I could see a few lights downhill to the left of the car far off in the distance.
“Dad,” I asked, yawning. “Where are we?”
My Dad replied, “Erie, Pennsylvania.”
I smiled. “We’re almost home.”
At the end of that trip, we pulled onto the same street we left just a year ago. Again, I was five. I had no idea how we ended up moving almost a thousand miles away for an extended period and returned to the very same house. I didn’t get into all the particulars. In fact, I’m still bad with particulars. But I knew home was home, and when we pulled into the driveway, I was sure of that.
The large glowing orb lights on the house to either side of the garage were both on, and from them hung a banner visible from a quarter-mile away: A White Paper Banner with Blue (paint? marker?) Print.
I ran straight up to my room. My bed was still there. My books and toys were still there. The artwork all still hung. Home was really home. It was as if Alabama never existed.
Except that it did. (And not just because I still say y’all.)
Not long thereafter, I spent the Summer of ’88 retracing my tracks, as I had described above. My parents indulged my intrigue and soon my room was decked out with a Rand McNally Road Atlas of the United States that took up half the available wallspace (pictured above), and a globe to match (so I could keep track of my Dad’s occasional work sojourns to The Netherlands and Japan, and figure out what U.S.S.R. stood for, of course).
I had a United States Atlas and a World Atlas, with roads and cities and mountains and rivers clearly marked. Some kids read novels. I read maps. And then I drew them. For hours. For every hour that I wasn’t watching ESPN. I had the United States committed to memory by the 90’s and most of the world, too. I could detail, in order, all the incorporated areas between Buffalo and Toronto on the QEW. I could tell you how to get to Sesame Street.
I fantasized about being blindfolded and dropped from a plane (with a parachute, of course) in the middle of nowhere and being forced to find my way back home using only my sense of direction. I always believed I could lead my friends, lost and scared and alone in some warped mountainous somewhere to safety and familiarity and the loving arms of our parents. I knew I could do it, and I know I could do it now. Hell, I would dare anyone to dare me. You give me one street sign, and I’ll find my way anywhere.
In general, traveling always excited me. I couldn’t wait to get in the car, or on a plane, and finally visit places I’d only seen on a map and imagined in my mind.
I always dug deep into the map on my way there. I wanted to get a feel for the city. I wanted to find the fastest, most scenic route. I wanted to get around with confidence and style. Of course, I couldn’t even drive yet.
The best part about traveling was seeing how different everything looked not just from where you lived, but also from what you conjured up in your head. I remember Arizona looking more wild and beautiful than I ever thought possible. I remember Disney World being unfathomably large. I remember Scotland being greener than anywhere else I’d ever been. I remember the first time I entered the concrete jungle out of the Lincoln Tunnel. Everything’s different, bigger, dreamier, more fantastic, whimsical and alive. No map could ever capture that.
I’ve been called “The Human GPS” by friends. I’m not sure if I should consider that a complement, or an indictment of my navigational, exploratory fetish.
When I’d play on the beach as a kid, I’d craft scale models of fantastic cities with intricate highway and irrigation systems to help fake sand-people get around and avoid rush hour traffic or high tides. One particularly elaborate ville took an entire week and stretched some 50′ by 50′.
I could never conjure up a Megalopolis in SimCity, though I spent hours over weeks trying. I settled for trying to build replicas of Buffalo and Utica instead. Looking back, those were probably bad cities to model your urban planning skills after. Probably needed more Fire Departments.
When I worked in a call center, I would Google Map (they were relatively new things back then, you know) every address of every place I ever called. Sometimes you’re just really Jonesing to know what’s up there in Medicine Hat, Alberta (Answer: Not a ton). Or want to track how close to the coast Thousand Oaks, CA is (Answer: Pretty close). I would daydream about what it must be like in those far away locales, with faraway people doing faraway things like surfing or curling or drinking beers I’d never heard of or eating scrapple or speaking in awesome accents. I wanted to bring the faraway world close to me, just a regular dude stuck in a regular city around regular people.
To this day, I will still read the map of wherever I am, wherever I go. I want to know the ins and outs of places just like the locals do. I can tell you Freeport, Bahamas is closer to West Palm Beach, Florida than Miami is – and that if you could drive by car, it’d be only 45 minutes away. I always pictured myself on a Miami Vice-ish Jet Boat with four bikini-clad models and a brick of cocaine speeding away from civilization, headed out into the deep blue abyss toward nowhere in particular, hoping for land.
At 18, I once proudly drove from Utica, NY to Philadelphia, PA, to Ocean City, NJ back to Philadelphia, to Washington, DC to Raleigh, NC to Westport, CT to Atlantic City, NJ, back to Westport, to Albany, NY to Utica, to Buffalo, to Cleveland, OH to Rochester, NY and finally back to Utica over the course of an invigorating 17 days, just visiting friends, colleges and places. 3500 miles. Alone. In a 1991 Pontiac Bonneville with only my CD player blasting out my favorite tunes. It was a glorious, wild introduction to the unlimited bounty of this great country, as well as the first true wide-eyed what-the-hell-why-not caution-to-the-wind journey of adulthood. I saw concerts, ran races, enrolled in school, went to bars underage, took drugs, visited families, sat on the beach, swam in the Ocean, walked around New York City, went to a 4th of July BBQ, saw extended family, raced cars down the Interstates, outran the cops, rode rollercoasters and hit up insane parties.
And I did it all without a map. Didn’t need one anymore, I guess. I didn’t know in my head where I wanted to go. Just how to get there. Frankly, that’s far more exciting than the opposite.
Call me an optimist, but I’d rather I know I can go anywhere, pick somewhere and go than know I want to go somewhere, get lost and give up.
Guess that’s how I ended up here. From my driveway as a kid, to the expressways of my youth, to the highways still to come: My roads were paved in chalk.
Not bad for a kid who never finished Kindergarten.
Thirtyist is a series of 30 tales of the 30 people, places, ideas and events that shaped the last 30 years of the life of someone of no particular importance – told in no particular order. To read them all, click on the post tag, “Thirtyist” or on the links below.*