Off the Map

Eight places to discover yourself

The Cold

The year is 1882. A crew of four hardy men travels forty miles north from the white settlement of Grand Rapids to complete one of the first land surveys of Minnesota’s north woods before the onslaught of winter. Equipped with canvas tents and staples—pork, beans, flour, and dried apples—the crew members camp for a month among towering virgin white and red pine, surrounded by desolate swampland, while snow and cold wind blow through the November air.

For reasons unknown—was it the severe cold? the blinding snow?—the crew makes a huge mistake in its mapping of the six-square-mile territory between Moose and Coddington Lakes, plotting nearby Coddington to be a half mile farther northwest than it actually is. The result is that 144 acres of virgin pine are recorded on maps and in history as being underwater and, thus, this area is left unlogged by the lumberjacks who come and harvest the timber of the northern forests. For years, the “Lost Forty” remains a blank on every map and atlas. Off the map, it is nonexistent.

The year is 1988. One week in January, temperatures drop below zero for several days. Batteries freeze; garages and gas stations fill with stranded vehicles. Wrapped in a down parka, I walk the mile to work in my Sorrels, fierce wind and snow blowing into my face. Moisture freezes under my nostrils as I breathe, and I wrap my long wool scarf more tightly around my head. I am finalizing efforts in court to move my three children from Minnesota to California legally after a divorce, and I imagine the weather conspiring against me. Tired of winter, I long for a kinder environment and for spring.

Illustration by Anna Hall

The year is 1949. Paul Bowles publishes his novel The Sheltering Sky, a harrowing account of a disenchanted husband and wife who set out to the Sahara, trying to escape the boredom and isolation of their synthetic lives back in New York. In a culture where they have no place, deceived by impulses that lead them in separate directions, they drift further apart and deeper into the landscape of the desert. The third and final section of the book starts with an epigraph from Kafka: From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.

In 1988, after my divorce, I travel hundreds of miles across the country with my children, abandoning my life in Minnesota. I cannot take back these decisions: giving up my home, my way of life, and my marriage. The divorce leaves scars and failure in its wake. What lies ahead? I am afraid to know. What do I want? I’m not sure. There is only the memory of having once been happy.

In my journal, I write: Maps tell you where you are. If you are not there, you may be lost. If you are lost, how will you know where to go or how to find your way back? Maps can help you plot the journey from one place to another, but they cannot dictate where you go. If you fail to read them correctly or get confused, a fatal error may occur. You may have waited too long and traveled too far to turn around and go back. Time is forgiving, but first it sweeps in and makes the decision.

The husband and wife in The Sheltering Sky make a huge mistake. Ignoring their own vulnerability, they underestimate the desert’s peril and do not see, cannot heed, its warnings. With impassive cruelty, the desert offers them days of hot, blistering sun and nights of unceasing blackness. With a false sense of impunity, they make their way, little knowing that time, with its insistent regularity, is pitting them against unconscious forces, taking them farther into the flat, vast emptiness of the Sahara, with its sharp-edged horizon, its black abyss. Without benefit of medicine or proper care, the man dies of typhoid. Alone in the desert, his wife succumbs to madness.

When I left my marriage, I was vulnerable, unprepared. I thought I was turning things over, moving beyond an unhappy ending. Like the couple in Bowles’s Sheltering Sky, I kept plunging ahead, seeing possibility in every move. But I was lost. Only upon reaching that place where I couldn’t turn around and go back did I know I was lost. This must have been what Kafka meant. There is no point of no return. The point must be reached before it is realized.  

Is it only in hindsight where the light of waking up occurs? If so, then I traveled two thousand miles across the country to realize what I needed was not traveling to a new place. What I came to discover was a new way of seeing my life. There is no map for starting that journey.


Nearly every summer of my childhood, my father brought out his maps and charted a road trip that would take us from our Air Force-assigned home in Greenville, South Carolina, to visit relatives in Iowa and Minnesota. On the day of the trip, Dad and Mom would load the car, and around midnight, the beginning of his thirty-day military vacation leave, Dad would drive the few miles to Donaldson Air Force Base to sign out officially. Returning, he would signal his four sleepy children to pile into the back seat with our blankets and pillows to begin the journey.

Nothing was more thrilling than seeing Dad getting into the car with his big coffee-filled thermos and hearing the sound of the car’s engine turn over. Every trip before leaving, Dad, in punctual military fashion, would turn around in the car, look at his children sitting in the back seat, and say, “Are we ready?” There was nothing more comforting than falling back asleep to the hum of the motor running through the night.

To save time and money, Dad and Mom took turns driving all night on two-lane winding highways through the silent Blue Ridge Range of the Appalachians. I watched as Dad gripped the wheel, steering us around curving mountain roads, a mug of black coffee in one hand, a lit Chesterfield between two fingers of the other. In the back seat, one child’s body pressed against the next, and we buried our faces into pillows to lessen the sickening smell of Dad’s cigarette smoke. It was not unusual to wake up and discover the car stopped on the shoulder and one of my younger brothers throwing up in a ditch. Mom took this opportunity to advise Dad he should stop smoking. They would argue until one of them chose to back down, and the car moved on silently through the grandeur of the Appalachian landscape.

I loved waking in the middle of the night, encountering the glare of neon lights from roadside cafes and the noise of big eighteen wheelers we passed in our Chevy (or was it our Ford?). Mostly, I loved looking out my window at the stars. Hundreds of miles from our home, the same stars were always there. They seemed never to move at all. I felt safe exploring, from inside the car, a world I had yet to know, full of so many others traveling where their lives were taking them.

One night when I was much older, sixteen, we made the trip to attend the funeral of my grandfather, my father’s father. My mother was driving; my father sat in the front with the map, his head slumped against his chest and snoring. My younger brothers and I were crammed together in the back seat (by then, my sister was in college). Somewhere outside of Lexington, Kentucky, we all woke to the sound of brakes screeching, the car coming to a sudden halt in front of a barricade of flashing yellow lights surrounded by darkness.

God dammit! Dad suddenly yelled.What in Christ are you doing? My mother was defensive. You were supposed to be reading the map, she answered. Reaching for his thermos, Dad poured coffee into his mug. I did, he said. This isn’t on the map. Where are we?

Dad lifted the map from his lap, batting its creased edges with his fist. He stared at the small print, the muscles of his face contorting in the light of the glove compartment’s lamp. He raised his head. He peered through the windshield. The night was black. Not a star in the sky. How in the hell did this happen, he said, shaking the map chaotically at the air, throwing it at my mother in disgust.

Mother shoved him against the door with both hands, the mug of coffee falling from the dash. I heard myself scream, Stop! One of my brothers began to cry. I threatened to leave the car and walk home.

It stopped as suddenly as it started, with the usual sullen stares and black silences after my parents would argue. Like many in the military, Dad appeared tough and had a short fuse for what he thought unnecessary mistakes. On many occasions, we kids witnessed the swelling of his anger, his explosive language and facial contortions alerting us of his unwillingness to tolerate whatever was or might be happening.

I was certain, as were all my siblings, of my father’s love for us. I also knew not to cross him. On the other hand, my mother, a strong believer in herself and her own values and opinions, challenged him frequently. I had observed their quarreling enough to know that reconciliation and forgiveness were around the corner. Somehow, this time, in the middle of nowhere, seemed different. I waited for that reconciliation, wishing I were home underneath the covers in my own bed.

No one spoke as Dad opened his door, walked around the car to my mother’s side, and signaled for her to get out, sweeping his arm upward as if conducting one of his military drills. I held my breath as she got out. The two of them switched places. My father backed up the car, turned it around, and began driving slowly in the opposite direction. A mile later, I looked back, noticing on the opposite side of the road the exit Mother had missed. A short distance later, on that same side of the road, I saw a sign: detour ahead–pavement ends. I said nothing to either of them. My father was looking straight ahead. He did not see the sign. He kept driving until a crossroad appeared, giving him the choice of moving in a different direction. I have no memory of whether we went left or right or turned around to find the exit he and my mother had both missed. Eventually, I fell back asleep, but my father drove all through the night. He seemed far away, lost in his own reflection.


In the 16th century, Copernicus spends his nights looking upward at the stars from an observation tower in Poland and draws a not entirely original conclusion: the Earth moves around our sun, the fixed center of our solar system, and the apparent motion of stars is an illusion caused by the movement of the Earth. It turns out his hypothesis is only partly accurate: the Earth does move, but so do the stars. Stars move around the central core of their galaxy, speeding like race cars around a circular track. Our sun speeds more than 142 miles per second around the center of its galaxy. We can’t see it moving because we have the same momentum.

Things are not always as they appear. One can become lost in the illusion of appearances. A child looks up at the night sky and sees forever. Years later, the same child, far from home and older, ponders those same stars, pinpointing the exact spot where she saw them before. Season to season, year after year, these stars move across our hemispheres with quiet reassurance while her own life changes frighteningly. She wants to feel safe, to feel certain. Those stars and their configurations, so very far away, promise hope.

As years passed, no one in my family ever mentioned that incident from my childhood, the time we got lost in Kentucky in the middle of the night. It seems now that we were afraid to bring it up, to cause another upset, and so we remained silent. All these years later, I wonder, Was my memory accurate? Those internal landscapes, the way a child sees her world—could it have been a dream? I want to say it happened. But it was so long ago and I am so far away from that night. I can’t be sure.

The Abyss

The year is 1991. I am living on a ranch in California, where the sun always shines. One afternoon, I sit on my steps, watching the sun turn amber, then fiery red between the darkening sky and the distant Vaca Mountains. I watch it disappear and the sky turn black, stars appearing, tiny lights suspended in a black sea. I read them like maps, thinking of those early explorers who traveled north to the Lost Forty and pitched their tents in freezing snow and wind under such a sky. What did they see? Were the stars any comfort to them, these same stars, same constellations?

For centuries, ideas about the size and shape of the Earth were in dispute. As a child, I learned that as late as the time of Columbus, there were popular misconceptions that the Earth was flat, the ocean was filled with monsters large enough to devour ships, and if you sailed far enough, you might sail off the edge. Even with maps, there was a fear of that place where the sun, a sliver of indistinct light above the horizon, disappeared beneath a looming black sky. Few dared to travel that far. They were fearful of falling into the abyss.

The mind can be deceived by the enormity of what it sees. Things that appear fixed move. Things far away seem close. Nothing is forever. On some level, everything is always changing, going somewhere, transforming into something else.

In the first years after my move, most afternoons I could be found at my ranch in California, sitting on my back steps, watching as the sun lowered itself beneath the purple and blue haze of distant hills. Night would come, and I’d spot the Big Dipper skimming low against the horizon like a spoon resting against Earth. I’d think of Minnesota. I’d think of our lake and these same stars in spring, high in the northern night sky. I missed seeing them there and the sound of crickets outside our house on Deer Lake. I missed the faraway sound of the train groaning though our town, hearing our dog barking to be let in, my children rushing to the door to bring him into our warm house until he begged to be released again into the cooler night. I missed, too, the man who had been my husband.

A Dream

One night, when I walk back inside our farmhouse, I’m thinking of a dream I had from the previous night, a train taking me to some unknown destination, picking up speed through the countryside, suddenly stopping in the middle of nowhere. Outside the train, the landscape appears surreal, filling every distance with a compelling beauty. I hear the voice of the conductor announcing that everyone has the choice to stay or get off. But, he warns, if you leave, it’s permanent. You will have to say goodbye to everything you know or have known. Everything. Upon waking, I am filled with an ominous fear. Did I get off the train? Have I left everything? My childhood? My life? Then I remember. It is too late. I have already left.

In the film Out of Africa, the protagonist declares, “Perhaps … the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.” What if we could see what lies ahead? How would the landscape change? Would we see forever? What if we could read our dreams, or take them back, change our view of them, even slightly, in order that we see the way things are? The Earth is not flat, it turns out, but spherical. We no longer cling, as did Copernicus, to the old idea that all heavenly bodies move in perfect circles. Copernicus was right about the Earth and planets revolving around the sun, but he was wrong about the sun, which is not the center of the universe. It moves, too, as do all the stars.  

How do you live when you are still in a dream, wanting to be anywhere but where you are—at the edge of the horizon, about to drop into the abyss. No map. No navigational guidepost. No warning. Only stars. The stars, the world, the sun and moon. . . . They are all the same here as there. But I am here, I say to myself, and not there.

One thing ends; another begins. These days, I am somewhere between grief and the hope that my life will change for the better. I wait, believing if you wait long enough, that will happen. But you can wait a long time; you can be swept up in delusion. You can become lost before you realize you may have traveled too far.

The Unknown

Though I lived less than an hour’s drive from the Lost Forty, I never went there. But in 2013, years after my move from Minnesota, my life is unraveling again. I feel abandoned, lost and struggling for some new way to live. To begin again. What would it be like standing under red and white pines over three hundred years old? I want that kind of experience.

Driving two thousand miles back to Minnesota, I find the site where the map said it would be, barely noticeable among the miles of scraggly black spruce swamp and lake of the Chippewa National Forest. A sign in front of an indistinct path off the road confirms I have arrived at the site of the Lost Forty.

At the trailhead, I lift a brochure from a plastic box and look at the map. I decide to take the self-guided one-mile trail, stepping carefully over the woody debris of fallen, rotting limbs and spongy topsoil to avoid disturbing any delicate seedlings or microorganisms, old growth of future years. Dead and dying trees in various stages of decay lie untouched alongside stands of virgin pine. I stare in wonder. Here in a small preserved plot is the complete cycle of life: birth, aging, and death. I lift my camera from my shoulder, set it atop a log, and take a timed exposure of myself in front of a giant red pine. More than one hundred years have passed since the surveyors took a photo of themselves as they camped beneath these same trees, the ones they left off the map.

For one small fleeting moment, I feel myself waking up, as if drifting from some dream, some semi-conscious state where I have been living. I feel Nature, the great teacher, leading me out of confusion into greater realization, from fearful hesitance to a joyful discovery. I feel my connection to the millions of stars and unknown galaxies not reached by any telescope. Then I think of Bowles’s novel, the desert and the alienated disbelieving self, and what Kafka said about the point that must be reached.

The books of my childhood were filled with stories of children lost, trying to find their way home. They ventured forth, without map or direction, to discover home is not on any map. I think of my dream of trying to decide whether to stay on the train or to leave. Waking to avoid choosing, afraid of what I’ll see, or not see, again. What those early explorers must have feared as they set out to chart those difficult places of the unknown. Dropping off into the abyss.

Few guideposts existed for those explorers mapping the unknown. Traveling the world with their querying, watchful eyes, they relied on their spirits, their courage and determination, their faith. They created unique maps showing the mutable landscapes where they had been, places of astounding surprise. Some saw the world as flat and feared they would come to its edge and drop. In time, astronomers, denying this flawed perspective, marked the Earth as a sphere in a universe of many spheres.  The world bends, they insisted, showing their constellations of stars, the sun, and the planets overarching the Earth.


On a map of Itasca County in northern Minnesota is the township of Deer River. There, on the shores of a lake, I fell in love, had children, put down roots, witnessed the seasons and the passage of time. When I left, a blank space in my heart marked the spot where I had lived those years. All that remains of my presence there is memory. You cannot find memory on any map.

What those early explorers saw as they set out on their journeys was not merely cartographers’ lines and symbols showing longitude and latitude, or a carefully plotted Euclidean continuum of space and time. What they saw—and what you see when your life is set into motion—was worlds of infinite possibility, new maps captured like colorful snapshots of the landscape, which slips and changes with flashes of shadow and darkness, its unfathomable nature as mysterious as those sources of invisible matter between the stars.

Maps change. The abyss no longer exists. Eventually, virgin forests die, stars explode, and human life ends. The whole cosmos is always hurtling forward. You may glance back at what was there, but what you see will not be the same as when you first experienced or last remembered it. You will always be finding yourself in a new place. But you are not lost. You are here.

About the Author

Sondra Olson

Sondra Olson began exploring and experimenting more frequently with hybrid forms of writing after working with John D'Agata at the 2010 Tomales Bay Writers Conference in California. Her essays have appeared in Clockhouse, the Lindenwood Review, Farallon Review, and elsewhere.

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