Off the Map

Off the Map

I didn’t play many video games as a kid, but when I did, I gravitated toward games with a level editor. Say you’ve beaten all 50 levels of an army-building strategy game; you’ve conquered all the known lands. What next? The best games would provide you with software to build your own levels. Starting with a blank field of grass, you’d drag a forest onto the screen, click a few rivers into action, and maybe carve a rocky canyon down the middle. To me this was more fun than the game itself—to shape and explore a brand new world, a place without names or history.

Two new books offer similar thrills.

Travel NotesTravel Notes by Stanley Crawford (first published in 1967 and newly reissued by Calamari Press) is a grim parody of the kind of armchair adventuring that you find in glossy travel magazines. Its hero is a shrewd, wealthy narrator who has always been, and always will be, traveling the world for no apparent reason. Crawford is a bleak absurdist, populating his novel with abysmally inefficient bureaucrats and a parade of backwater societies. When a hotel toilet malfunctions, it doesn’t just malfunction—the toilet seat cracks beneath the narrator, and the whole floor gives way, ripping apart the building and revealing a room underneath that is eerily identical to the one he was just in, while the narrator clings to the toilet’s pull-chain for dear life. With his biting observations and cartoon mishaps, the narrator comes across as Samuel Beckett trapped in a Mr. Bean movie. When he crosses paths with his wife—who is also traveling the world, but in the opposite direction—he spurns her and leaves her shivering by the side of a road, a comic reversal of Odysseus and Penelope. But the real fun of Travel Notes is what it withholds. Crawford doesn’t offer any place names, maps, or other markers that would locate his story in the real world, so the entire travelogue reads like a map that’s been scrubbed of its labels. You start to feel the unnerving dislocation and comic futility of endless travel, of being trapped in a comical hell of passports, foreign customs, and unfamiliar languages.

Home GroundScrubbing the map is also what Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape does, but in a very different way. While Travel Notes tells a particular story with no recognizable landmarks, Home Ground tells no particular story with very specific landmarks. It’s a dictionary-as-field-guide, defining terms for the more obscure features of America’s landscape—terms like “shield volcano,” “quaking bog,” “fishhook dune,” and “hognose scarp.” Well-known writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Antonya Nelson, Robert Hass, and Jon Krakauer contribute the entries, turning them into beautifully informative mini-essays. The entry for “sendero” by Arturo Longoria reads:

A sendero is a cleared pathway (always in a straight line) through the woods or brushlands of south Texas and Mexico, often several miles long. Not until bulldozers were used for oil and gas exploration did senderos become commonplace. Most senderos are from twenty to fifty feet wide, though some are as much as fifty yards across. Hunters often set up blinds (shooting towers) along senderos to harvest deer as the animals cross. In the book A Vaquero of the Brush Country, John D. Young and J. Frank Dobie write: “I have sought to open a sender, as we say on the border—a clearing—that will allow people to behold some of the secrets that the brush has hidden.”

Home Ground is the closest thing to a book version of that level editing software for video games—a verbal toolbox for building a unique, fully realized landscape. I have been flipping through it every night for three months, and I keep finding some new, intimate tidbit about North America’s land. If we ever have to recreate our planet from scratch (on a distant moon, perhaps, after we wreck Earth through climate change) Home Ground is the blueprint I want to use.

– Brian Hurley

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