23 Oct Maps and Guidebooks: Strange Adventures into the Nonexistent
All of us can probably relate to this scenario: you’re traveling in unfamiliar territory or to a new destination, so you search a digital or paper map to get your bearings. You locate a town, river or street on the map that you can use as a physical marker in the real world. But when you arrive at the place where it’s supposed to be, it just isn’t.
A map can’t be wrong, can it? It turns out it can—and sometimes it’s wrong on purpose. Your inability to find that city, waterway or road may not be due to your faulty sense of direction or incapacity for following directions. That feature may never have existed in the first place.
And it’s all because the company that produces the maps wants to protect its intellectual property.
Legal device and war strategy
Fake or fictitious entries in reference works such as dictionaries, directories, encyclopedias and maps are created to protect copyrights. Nonexistent entities that have been placed on maps include fake towns, fake streets, fake river bends or even inaccurate mountain elevations. Then, when these manufactured elements appear on another mapmaker’s or competitor’s products, the copycats are exposed and can be sued for copyright infringement.
This tactic may have been inspired by an event in France during World War I. The Parisians found out that the Germans were planning a horrific bombing of the city. So they decided to build a fake Paris situated on the outskirts of the real one, hoping that the Germans wouldn’t know the difference in the dark and destroy the imitation.
Unfortunately, the replica was not quite finished before the Germans made their last air raid on the city, in September 1918. The fake Paris was never tested and was dismantled after the war.
In the 1930s, Otto G. Lindberg of General Drafting Company and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, devised a plan to protect their maps. They invented a place they called “Agloe,” a mix of their initials (O. G. L. and E. A.) and printed it on their map of New York. Sure enough, Agloe soon appeared on competitor Rand McNally’s maps. General Drafting Company then sued Rand McNally.
Strangely enough, however, there is no evidence that Rand McNally was ever found guilty. For its defense, Rand McNally sent cartographers to upstate New York; and there, where Agloe was marked on the maps, was a building called the “Agloe General Store.” According to Robert Krulwich, the science correspondent for National Public Radio, the store’s owners had seen Agloe on a map distributed by Esso, a company that owned many gas stations. Esso had bought the map from Lindberg and Alpers. The store’s owners decided that since Esso had a map calling the place Agloe, that’s what they’d call their store.
But such fake map towns aren’t only relics of the past. Google cartographers still use the ploy. An article in The Telegraph in 2009 tells the story of Argleton, a supposed town in northeastern England. Argleton was placed on Google Maps. When the public got wind of the “error,” Google erased Argleton from its digital products, claiming that mistakes are sometimes made. However, some have pointed out that “Argle” sounds like “Google” and the phantom town’s name is an anagram of “Not Real G” and “Not Large.”
A tree that wasn’t
In his 2008 book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, author Thomas Kohnstamm lists one of the main qualifications for a travel writer as “Creativity: the imagination to write about places you never actually visit.” In fact, he says, in the guidebook industry, “desk updates” is a common phrase, which means not paying to send an author to the destination he or she is supposed to write about. Out of necessity, then, guidebook descriptions of places to see and things to do are often carried over from previous editions—or from competitors’ guidebooks.
I was once a victim of that process. To conduct research while writing a book on Wisconsin forests, I relied on a guidebook from a well-known publishing firm (I won’t mention which) to find a famous tree in the Flambeau River State Forest. A paragraph in the guidebook read, “a park highlight is the Big White Pine, over 130 feet tall and 300 years old, off County Road M.”
After an hour of searching the deep Wisconsin Northwoods—driving up and down a dirt trail (it couldn’t really be called a road)—I managed to locate a suspicious stump in the place I decided by using the guidebook’s directions had to have been the site of the Big White Pine. I later found out from locals that the tree had been cut down anonymously a few years ago—but before the publication date of the guidebook. It was clear that the reference to the Big White Pine had either been picked up from an earlier edition without boots-on-the-ground fact-checking or from a fake entry in a competitor’s guidebook.
Have you ever become frustrated looking for a town or landmark on a map, only to find it was fake or no longer existed in the real world? Do you depend on guidebooks and maps when you travel, or do you prefer to tap into real-time, social media recommendations?
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
Latest posts by Candice Gaukel Andrews (see all)
- 10 Reasons Why a Dose of Fear Is Good for You - December 13, 2017
- Extinction Tourism: Seeing Wild Animals Before They’re Gone - November 8, 2017
- The Travel Cycle’s Four Stages—Plus One - October 18, 2017