North 20°54, West 156°14 – Maggie Messitt


In 2009, my mother’s youngest sister went missing.


Today, my writing room is wallpapered with maps. Brooklyn, The Rockaways, Greenwich Village, and Long Island City fill my western wall. Eugene, Olympia, and Yelm sit in the northeastern corner while Maui, New Orleans, Asheville, and Mineral fill the southeast. And a map of the country traces my aunt’s 51 years in string and colored paper, from southern Illinois to the Haiku bush of eastern Maui.


I have become my own cartographer with my own language and my own terms.


My obsession with maps started inside a barn alongside an unnamed road in northern Illinois—a hoarder’s antique shop on the way to Galena. My mother was shopping for furniture. I was digging through boxes. I was ten and already obsessed with true stories where people and places and discoveries were hiding.

At the bottom of a box, I spotted a thin, geography textbook from 1885, A.S.Barnes and Company embossed on the back cover. I ran my fingers along its 96 pages of illustrations and lessons. I started to page through the book backwards: Oceania, Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, North America, the World. I read the lists of the longest rivers and highest mountains out loud: Am’azon, Nile, Mississippi, Missouri, Niger, Congo, Yang Tse-Kiang, Everest, Aconcagua, Chimborazo, Sorata, Illimani, Kenia, Wrangel, Kilima Njaro.

But, no one was listening, so I purchased it for a quarter and brought it home.


Maps are about boundaries and perception. They are about recognizing and being recognized.


In 2003, when I first told my parents I was moving to Africa (where I would live for eight years), my father sat in silence for a few minutes before walking to his den, retrieving the biggest atlas I had ever seen, and plunking it open on the kitchen table. He silently flipped to South Africa and peered over the country, searching for the town to which I was moving. But, it wasn’t even on the map.

I took a pencil and carefully created a dot.


Maps are memory.


Google Maps now allows me to time travel. Some mornings, when I’m homesick, I make my way back to 2007. I look for my Land Rover parked outside of the little cottage on Lerato where I once lived, my forever home in South Africa. With one click, I am married again, waking up beside the dam, drinking coffee on the porch while the dogs run their noses, tracking the previous night’s movement—zebra, warthog, hyena, impala and leopard. And there are giraffe drinking on the opposite side of the dam.

Other times, in the middle of the night, I rewind my way through Maui, where my aunt went missing. I drive Hana Highway and peer down roads that lead to the Pacific, and up toward Haleakala. But Google hasn’t travelled down these roads. I am desperate to do a grid search, replicating 2010 when investigators walked side-by-side, three-feet-apart, scanning for her body. I zoom out and from the sky look for signs of a tent or a blue hammock in the trees, but everything is simply too dense. Untraceable. Unknown. Unmarked on the map.


Maps help us search.


I’ve drowned in maps. Tourist maps of Maui. Irrigation. Rainfall. Rivers and tributaries. Historical and present day. Each with so many boundaries. To cope, I find myself creating abstract bodies of topography and watercolor. I pare away the borders, preventing movement from here and there, and begin to reimagine the space as permeable, migrant, inclusive. I see options for where she was and where she might be. I see more clearly.


Maps can be their own kind of fiction.


Walking in the wilderness is not new to me. I lived in wild spaces for nearly a decade. My father, raised in the wilderness of Chicago, could stand anywhere in the city and tell you, based on having memorized the grid system, exactly how far you were from The Loop and the lake. He took pride in this skill and, despite having raised us as suburban kids, he still tried to quiz me. I never passed. But if you dropped me in the middle of the bush or a city, I would confidently find my way home. Africa heightened my already strong sense of direction, but in remote and wild places, street names are useless. Directions are tied to landmarks: tree names, geographical features, objects hanging in trees, stories attached to corners and forks, and character descriptions of streams and rivers. The road may have a name when you look on a map, but if no one uses that name or even knows that name, is it real?



An independent narrative and immersion journalist, Maggie Messitt has spent the last decade reporting from inside underserved communities in southern Africa and middle America. Typically focused on complex issues through the lens of every day life, her work is deeply invested in rural regions, social justice, and environmental sustainability. Messitt currently resides in southeast Ohio where she’s completing her doctorate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in April 2015, is her first book.


21 thoughts on “North 20°54, West 156°14 – Maggie Messitt

    • I absolutely agree. “There are stories behind every change,” and it seems to me that there are changes around every corner. layers and layers of story to unravel, peel away. I am so glad you enjoyed the essay!

  1. One of my greatest jobs as a graphic artist has been designing and creating maps for destinations and events. The storytelling potential map is unlike anything else. And yeah, I love getting lost in Google maps, looking for places I’ve read about in books, looking at roads from all of the European bike races I watch, or even looking into remote regions like Siberia. Great post, need to follow your blog more often!

    • “The storytelling potential map is unlike anything else.” I couldn’t agree more, Jason. I love the idea of traveling the world via Google Maps, and do so (in my own way) quite frequently. I’d love to see some of your map work. Don’t hesitate to shoot me an email! I had a lovely experience this summer working with an illustrator to put together maps of remote South African locations. It was an amazing puzzle given most maps have it all wrong and the truth is only something you know if you’ve spent a significant amount of time on the ground. Thanks for reading my essay!

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  3. I thought I’d gotten off the grid when I moved to a remote village in southern Ethiopia in 1966. Directions were entirely by landmarks. One day a US Army jeep pulled up at my compound and out popped an American sergeant with a large gut. “US mapping mission,” he said. “I’m hoping you can give me a few pointers on local landmarks.” I persuaded him to drink some of the local honey wine (“tej”) and got him drunk. And then he was gone, bouncing away in his jeep, into the unmapped savannah. There’s no place so remote the mapmakers can’t find you.

  4. Great story. I love maps and sat photos, I think because I have zero sense of direction which I am sure is genetic in origin. On Google Maps my son’s car is parked next door and not in far Oregon where he lives with his new bride today.

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