This summer a friend and I took our sons and their friends--five teenaged skateboarders in all--on a zig-zagged, cross-country road trip. Our mission was to explore America's skate parks, which we did in a giant S-shaped east-to-west route. To navigate the many miles of our overly-ambitious journey, we relied on GPS-enabled smartphones, a wi-fi hotspot, an iPad, a laptop, and Google Maps.
Across three weeks and 5,000 miles, we never got lost.
At one point, my eldest son wanted to find a concrete plaza in a housing complex in Cleveland, a so-called "skate spot" he had seen on You Tube. All he knew was the name of the complex: King Kennedy. With just those two words, he was able to search Google Maps, zoom in with the "satellite view", find the spot, then ask Google and our iPad to show us how to get there off Interstate 90. I thought it was an impressive bit of on-the-fly navigating for a 14-year-old, and in similar fashion we found off-the-interstate spots in and around Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities. Not once did we unfold a paper map. Techno-geography all the way.
I was thrilled, then, to return home and find an advance copy of the perfect post-road trip book waiting for me: Maphead, by Ken Jennings, which was chosen as one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month last month.
Jennings is the all-time Jeopardy! champ and the author of Brainiac, about the strange world of trivia. (He returned to Jeopardy! earlier this year to face IBM's Watson computer. He lost). In Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird, World of Geography Wonks--a whip-smart and entertaining book--he writes about his obsession with maps, the history of cartography, and, of particular interest to me, a fellow geography geek, the story behind Google Earth and Google Maps, which in my view has made geography cool again.
I developed an instant kinship with Jennings and his knowledge of state capitals, his appreciation for geographic arcana and "crappy" hotel room tourist maps. Like Jennings's father, my dad was a map guy, and he passed that "cartophilia" onto me. I had maps pinned to my bedroom walls and took a globe with me to college. I like knowing where things are and, more importantly, where I am. I had been a late GPS adopter, preferring the look and feel of real maps and atlases, which once littered my car. I still carry a leather case in my trunk stuffed with at least twenty maps. But, like my kids--and like Jennings--I've come to appreciate the power of all forms of digital mapping. (My GPS-enabled cellphone has a British-accented advisor, who sounds more sure of herself than her American counterpart. A friend of mine uses an Australian accent on his GPS device; a Flight of the Conchords nut, he calls her Keitha.)
Jennings frets throughout Maphead about the disappearance of geography classes, a lack of "geo-awareness" and a "sagging geographic knowledge," which he blames partly on overparenting and sedentary, screen-bound lifestyles. I share his concerns, but I've also been heartened by watching my kids navigate greater Seattle by foot and bus (usually in search of skate parks) and in their ability to co-pilot their old man drive across the country. Jennings realizes that despite Google's domination of modern digital mapping, there may always be a place for maps and atlases, a love of which he hopes to pass onto his own kids. Maphead closes nicely with a "Sea of Sharks" treasure map drawn by his son.
(Read more at Sk8theSt8s.com)
Watch this space for an upcoming interview with Ken.