The Anti Definition

The Atlas

When I was a girl, I traveled with my grandparents, who took great summer adventures along the U.S. Atlantic border. When possible, we drove along the Atlantic Ocean; the Atlantic deriving its name from the classical Sea of Atlas. We went to our homeland, Alabama, and then to Georgia, South and North Carolina, Washington, East Virginia.

The backseat was my domain and it was full of blankets, tapes, secret stashes of Doritos and Almond Joys, kicked-off shoes, piles of Mad Libs, a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Bible, my journal and a worn copy of the Rand McNally Road Atlas.

It was my job to keep us on course, to tell my grandfather the fastest route to the next rest stop, where we might stretch our legs and get instant coffee out of a vending machine. It was my job to calculate the miles to the next civil war battlefield site, where we would meet men—the kind they don’t make anymore—immortalized in oil, stone, granite. It was my job to manage the fleet, to gauge where and how and what. And I took immense delight in tracing the paths along colored lines, in reading legends, learning keys because the process of following the map, of leaving and arriving, of choosing this path though I could see those paths I did not choose, held a comforting certainty that there was a path, a Way.

In Greek mythology Atlas is the Titian that holds the world in space. His brother was Prometheus, who gave humans the technology of fire. The etymology of the word atlas is still debated, but a commonly ascribed definition is that it means to hold or to hold up. Atlas is our god of cartography, a science that combines aesthetic, technology, and technique to spatially orient reality.

We have long since abandoned the old gods. The Promethean fire for knowing through traveling burns on in me, but now when I travel, I relinquish all responsibility for arriving to GPS technology. I do not hold the maps in my hand. I cannot trace the way with my fingertip. I will not see the path I choose nor do I see the multiple paths I might have chosen. I am told where to go, where to turn, how many miles more. The screen only charts what is directly in front of me. Without the expanse of the rest of the world unfolded before me on a map, I feel disoriented, disconnected. I have forgotten the Way. And as I pack my bag for Belize, I wish I felt the certainty and comfort that Atlas still held up our world.