I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a thing about maps. They fascinate me. I’ve been hooked from the first time I ever opened an atlas as a youngster and saw all those lines and dots and names of exotic faraway places. It was an almost overwhelming introduction to a world of possibilities that fired my imagination and lit my desire to find out what was in those places with the strange, evocative names.
My new favourite cafe, the Owl and the Elephant in Uraidla, South Australia, has earned this title because it is filled with tables upon which maps from across the world have been affixed. I call in there more than I should (we are saving money for an overseas adventure, after all) and paw over the tables, imagining myself on a ferry between Denmark and Norway, or once again standing atop the gorge bisecting Ronda in the midddle of the night, while a lone borracho wails plaintive flamenco tunes into the abyss.
Perhaps it’s the unknown quantity that I find so compelling; the mysterious pull of the unfamiliar and a curiosity to find out what lies around the next corner, over the next ridge or beyond The Horizon. But there’s also a strong compulsion to use maps to gain greater insight into the familiar. I have spent hours plotting my movements across a high resolution map that charts the landscape of my childhood, topography that I know almost as well as the features of my own children’s faces.
When I was younger, maps were objects of paper, the best of which expanded in a complex puzzle of folds to reveal their secrets. Early on I learned the value of deciphering this puzzle – the maps lasted longer and I avoided both the wrath of my parents and the scorn of my older brother, who was always a couple of steps ahead, cognitively. The legacy of these days can still be found at my house, where book shelves and car glove boxes are stuffed to capacity with dog-eared charts from past adventures and times from my youth spent dreaming of distant lands.
These days, with the advent of the Internet, smart phones, apps and platforms like Google Earth, Open Street Map and Galileo, access to maps has never been easier, and you don’t need a Masters in Origami to get your geographic fix.
For our upcoming adventure we will be relying in part on these digital options. We have our iPhones, for which we’ll purchase European SIM cards with data allowances to enable access to whichever online resource best suits our needs. To date, Google Maps has proven far more reliable than the proprietary Apple Maps app, other than that one journey I took, back when the Google Maps app was still in beta testing, when I ended up on a remote back-woods road in rural South Australia, banjos ringing in my ears as I passed rundown farmhouses with fox carcasses hanging from the fence. But that’s another story for another time…
Back in 2000 I spent three days walking one of the northern routes of the Camino de Santiago, el Camino Primitivo. I’m really keen to retrace at least part of that adventure, and to show my loved ones some of the places and sights that I remember with such clarity and fondness. Because el Camino goes well off-piste in some places, mobile reception will inevitably get a bit sketchy along the way, so to ensure we don’t get lost (well, not too lost, anyway), I’ve downloaded the Galileo app and a number of camino-specific maps. Galileo is “a map browsing app you can use offline. It makes life easier, when traveling (sic) without any Internet connection, because you can use previously saved offline maps on your mobile iOS device”.
I’m no expert when it comes to technical details and anything I tell you would most likely be at best innacurate, and at worst completely misleading, you’re much better off visiting their site and getting the good oil straight from the source. But suffice to say, with the .gpx maps I’ve downloaded, I’ll be able to keep us on the path when we venture beyond the reach of modern mobile communications. And the sooner we do that, the better, as far as Mem and I are concerned. Because, really, this whole journey is in part about freeing ourselves from the routines and habits that bind us to our current conventional lives. And a big part of that will include disconnecting our online IV tubes.
But when it comes to charting our adventures, we’re not going to be completely reliant on technology. In a burst of nostalgic inspiration, last week Mem and I visited our local map shop and bought the kids an old-school paper map each for Christmas. One was a world map, the other a chart of Spain. The idea is that this will both hone their origami skills, and also provide them with a fun way to keep track of our unfolding journey.
In reality, they’ll probably either completely dismiss the idea, or embrace it for a couple of days then leave the maps folded shut in the bottom of their packs for the rest of the trip. But hey, it excited us and made us feel like we were doing something fun and “out of the box” to prepare them for the massive change that this adventure represents.