Today, there’s a subculture for everything. If you like white ponies, then you’re part of that subculture and if you like pugs, you are a member of pug-lovers subculture. There is one culture, though, that has facets of not only being a subculture, but also culture, as well, and that is the map culture.
There are those people out there, such as Ken Jennings, who consider maps the Holy Grail. Maphead is the map to that Holy Grail. Mapping has facets that cut across all parts of just about every culture and subculture you can find because of one simple fact: you have to know where you are.
Whether you use GPS via your laptop, smartphone, Garmin or TomTom or whether you are into Google Earth mapping or just love to look at the directions to a place and back again on Mapquest or on the older “Road Guides” that many people keep in their cars, along with their TomToms and Nav systems, “just in case,” then you’re probably a maphead too.
Ken Jennings is probably the biggest Maphead around as he became legendary for his geographic and mapping knowledge on the long-running TV information show “Jeopardy.” So, who is better placed to tell the story of the real mapheads of the world.
They are people who read maps for the fun of it. For example, there was a gentleman who lived in New England some years ago who, for pleasure, was always seen with an ancient copy of the Atlas of the late British Empire. He could cite names, places, routes and more and knew just about every plate in that huge (it was at least 12 by 14 with 400-velum pages and maps of every description, plus the description of the areas — at that time and it must have weighed nearly 30 pounds with it gorgeous leather and gold leaf binding). The same gentleman, by the way, read the entire “Encyclopedia Britannica” twice for fun, always stopping at the maps along the way.
In essence, he was an early Jennings, who did this not because he had to, but because he loved it.
There are countless men and women out there who love nothing more than poring over maps just to see what they look like and where they may be going, using them for more than the usual “where are we lost now?” that every passenger seems to ask every driver on the road when they reach areas they aren’t familiar with. Usually, the same person takes the map book — eschewing the GPS or Nav — in hand to rectify the situation and in most cases they do, sometimes outracing the computer/satellite system.
Mapheads come in all shapes and sizes and have been with us through the ages. For example, you’ll find examples in “Maphead” of the maps that ancient mariners used that had phantasmic dragons and sea serpents drawn on them for areas that were unexplored. And, for many, the world began at the coast and ended at the horizon, so that ancient maps were studies in narrow looks at areas. Yet, there were those who knew those maps by rote and could recite the routes to take or towns and villages along the way.
Mapping as a culture continues today as the National Geographic holds its mapping bees and future little mapping masters strut their stuff. Some of the youngsters are brilliant.
Which brings us back to the author whose work on “Jeopardy” is still the stuff of TV legend. He was able to have his encyclopedic knowledge because, he notes, he went to bed and woke up with a huge volume of the world Atlas as his daily routine. One could almost call it a fetish if it wasn’t so widespread and necessary because like it or not we are all slaves to directions and mapping. One person may use Mapquest to find all possible routes and times from here to there and back again and then pick up the local copy of the mapbook to find the same information. Mapheads come in all sizes, shapes, ages, ethnicities, sexes and any other pigeonhole you care to put around them.
Yet, at the bottom of it all, the “they” in this is actually us. Just look at yourself, the next time you’re taking a trip somewhere and we’ll bet you’re consulting Google Earth or Mapquest to program your Garmin or TomTom or car’s Nav system so you’ll get where you are going. We’re all Mapheads whether we know it or not.