on Tucson; traveling as shapeshifting; nuclear bunkers and anthropomorphic cacti; mapmaking; border crossings + Doodle Dispatches
A conjecture about the nature of air…
Flying east from where I live, there is a period of ritual sleep—you fold your body into the smallest version of itself and go dark in one way or another, whether through pharmaceuticals or hallucinogenic fatigue, or both. Hours pass. Then, you wake up, stretch, and bend yourself back into the shape of a human, before passing through to a vaguely recognizable world. The gray clouded skies of New England give way to the softer gray clouded skies of the UK or central Europe, one hundred year old vernacular wooden houses give way to five hundred year old stone cottages, asphalt gives way to cobblestones. Your body, which knows that it has not lived through enough time to want to be awake again, argues with the light and the clocks and gets confused about which way is north and which words are intelligible. Your sense of dimensionality is definitely at risk, but your shape does hold. Jet lag is weird as hell, but you never actually pass through yourself.
Flying west, as I did last week to southern Arizona, tests the limits of this spatial continuity. There is no overnight crossing, no ritual for persuading the body into a deformation of temporary non-being to help with time-space realignment. Yet we try anyway. The airplane lights go down, and we plug into screens or headphones and pretend to dream. Hours pass. The lights come on. The plane lands. Then, the lying begins. We tell our bodies that no hours have passed and that the whole day is still ahead of us. We talk of “gaining time.” Our bodies know better. They are older than we are now.
But it does kind of feel like we gain time. We become, for a few, preponed hours, almost immortal.
When you travel west from New England, there is also the matter of more light. You spill your tired self out of airport tunnels and conveyances into blinding brilliance. There is no diffused water here, no mists or cloud cover to buffer your eyes and skin; air is a conduit, not a barrier. Without humidity, the scent of objects—tires, fuel, dust, grass, denim, skin—can be differentiated. Shadows fall in sharp relief and have dominion over heat. Shapeshifters abound: anthropomorphic cacti greenly point the way through acres of scrub; ordinary bushes flower and incandesce, casting bursts of fuchsia onto concrete overpasses; plateaus of rolling uplands circle the horizon like mountains and then reveal themselves as minor, wind-scraped buttes. The topologies are recognizable, but only just.
I was in Arizona for mapmaking conference, the purpose of which was to learn more about a group of people who delineate and communicate topographies, not topologies, but I am who I am.
My employer concerns itself with what is now called location services, but what used to be called cartography. The difference is digital technology. We used to make maps by surveying landscapes with tools that we could hold in our hands. Now, we collect billions of pieces of data from global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), cars, phones, traffic lights, and other sources, sort it by algorithm, qualify it, and visualize it into machine-generated simulacra of streets and buildings.
Despite the computational science involved, this map is still based on a detailed catalog of terms and rules that correspond to material objects—things like airports, highways, buildings, parking lots, rivers, and bridges. It's a bit like linguistics, except that you’re organizing a collection of lines and points to help you get from here to there on the ground, instead of organizing symbols and sounds to help you communicate with language.
It’s a very top-down, hierarchical approach. The idea is that maps need to be absolutely accurate, so you can’t deviate from a core standard. Yes, the world changes—bridges wash out, new roads get built—but even in this dynamic environment, the processes to update the map are designed to reduce risk and are tightly controlled. It’s a good example of engineering thinking, and in many ways, it works.
The mapmaking organization that hosted the conference takes a slightly different approach. It builds the map from the ground up and adjusts the model to fit the needs of the location. The idea is that topographies have regional differences, so the best quality check comes from what you can see with your eyes. They’re still using all kinds of data and technology, but the model is intuitive rather than hierarchical. The map was formed from the landscape it represents instead of from a mental model that imposed a representation on the landscape. It’s in some ways a messier approach, but it has more capacity to evolve and grow.
In my day job, I sit at the intersection of these two approaches and watch the battle play out between the desire to engineer (and monetize) what e e cummings called “the great happening illimitably earth” and the desire to explore (and experience) it. Sometimes the tension is stressful. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. Last week it was both.
While I was out west, I went to two museums.
The first one was a deaccessioned Titan II missile site where, according to its website, visitors can “stand on the front lines of the Cold War.”
Standing on the front lines of the Cold War would not ordinarily be my first choice for tourism. I grew up inside the center of a circle inscribed by three nuclear missile sites, one in Cheyenne, Wyoming, one in Minot, North Dakota, and one in Great Falls, Montana. I remember being on the playground in first grade, looking up at the sky, and being aware that my tiny mountain town was inside the kill zone of an attack on “Peacekeeper” ICBMs.
Also, I have been listening to analysis about whether or not Putin was going to suck us all into a nuclear war for six weeks now.
I was extremely hungover and had not slept.
I had stuff on my mind—and a conference to get back to.
But I was curious, and curiosity always wins.
This place was an insane mix of vibes. There were fun toys and red, white, and blue bumper stickers and shot glasses and U.S. Navy-themed t-shirts for sale next to an exhibit describing the progression of the global nuclear arsenal since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There was a cheerful girl who rang up our admission, an endearingly amateur safety video to watch, and an earnest tour guide who was ex-Navy and reminded me of my dad.
We started the tour by going down a long flight of stairs. At the bottom, between the stairwell and the bunker, there were two very thick doors designed to protect the crew from a nuclear blast and its fallout. The tour guide gave a small boy a sort of missile-themed reward card for guessing how heavy they were (three tons).
Inside the bunker, everything was painted a clean, minty shade of cold war green. Every so often, along the perimeter there was a human-sized, apparently spring-loaded coil. These coils, along with a kind of rubber casing at the intersection of most of the ceilings and walls were shock absorbing mechanisms. The whole setup reminded me of the housing for a 1980s era Ford F-150 gear shaft, only at bunker scale.
There was a perfectly preserved 1960s era command and control room with what was once some kind of mainframe computer, a launch clock, and a large, complex arrangement of keys, drawers, locks, measures, shelves and dials. There were neatly labeled filing cabinets, hazmat suits on hangers, and those old- timey power switches with big round buttons that are fun to push. Everything was tidy and pristine and slightly carceral.
In this vintage command room, the tour guide helpfully talked us through all of the checks and balances of a nuclear launch process, including sitting the small boy’s mom on one side of a desk and another guy on the other side and then coaching them through a simulation in which they pretended to launch the missile.
The room was small and I was dizzy with fatigue, so I kept myself back from the group a bit and watched my friend take it all in. I could see his mind working—some tiny percent of his cognition tuned in to the tableaux being played out in front of us, the rest of it expertly cataloging the machine function of the myriad levers and buttons, running the physics and computational science of sending a nuclear warhead across a continent and an ocean, and sorting what small amount of this was new to him into the galaxy of data already inside of his head.
I wondered if he saw the weirdness of having people playact the launch of a missile.
I wondered if anyone did.
The tour guide spread his arms wide to show how it was impossible for one person to turn both of the launch keys at once.
I stood at the back and practiced my meditation breath while trying not to think of a bomb that would kill a million people in Russia.
Upstairs from the command room was a perfectly preserved living quarters, yet again painted in minty cold-war green, complete with bunk beds, an old school television set, a toaster oven (“microwaves weren’t invented yet,” said our guide, without a shred of irony), and a round kitchen table with a lonely-looking ashtray. There was an incongruous Victorian privacy screen (“females were allowed into the corps in the early 80s,” said the guide) and military-grade wool blankets on the beds.
The guide told us about shift schedules and the twenty-minute commute back to the air force base.
I pictured the ashtray full to overflowing from cigarettes smoked after a shift. I pictured off-duty personnel, fucking on a narrow bunk, bare skin against rough wool, trying not to bump their heads on the bed above, careful not to be heard by their on-duty coworkers below—the ones sitting at desks next to launch keys and strips of mylar tape printed with nuclear passcodes.
Inside and outside the bunker were viewing platforms that opened on the missile silo and the warhead itself, made of steel and glass and rivets and unfathomable physics. We looked at it from above and below, and it was awesome in the original sense of the word and strangely steampunk and weirdly beautiful.
The second museum that I visited was the Saguaro National Park, home to hundreds of towering Saguaro cacti amongst prickly pear, cholla, and a couple dozen other kinds of succulents and a much more conventional vibe. I went with my work colleagues, after first fueling ourselves with breakfast burritos and cappuccinos, then driving into the desert.
When we got to the museum, we parked and bought tickets so that we could walk through a gate that led back into the desert. We saw lizards and geckos and lined up with a group of other tourists along a pathway to watch raptors dive for prey and soar in the morning sunshine.
The desert sun felt good on my skin, until it climbed a bit and changed from springlike to summer hot. I applied and reapplied sunscreen and stood close behind my tall colleague to shelter in his shadow.
I got tired of the chatter and weary of following the painted arrows and dropped out of the tour, finding my way around the neatly groomed terraced hillside to an out of the way pavilion where I could look out on the desert, uninterrupted. I had some kind of idea of learning something about where I was by just sitting and looking at the surrounding hills.
Later, my tall colleague joined me, and we sat companionably in the shade, content to be away from the chittering crowd, talking of other landscapes and lives and our children, and taking it on faith from the passers by that there was a coyote snoozing in the shade of a bottle brush tree just behind us.
In front of us was the border of Mexico, hundreds of miles of land fading from plains into sky. There had been a humanitarian mapping presentation at the conference the day before. It was by a group called the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Diseased Migrants, who provide a service called “migrant death mapping,” which is what it sounds like: they locate the bodies of migrants who have died while crossing the border and note the time and place of death and identify the body—to the extent that these things are possible. It is deeply courageous and desperately sad work, part of a broader set of services provided by an organization called Humane Borders. I had not gone to the presentation—just knowing about such stories can be more than I can bear, much less being able to visualize them on a map—but my colleague had, and I had read about the organization and its work.
The ghosts of the missing were there with us as we sat in the shade amongst the flowering cacti and the shape-shifting colors of the desert spring.
My mapping colleagues talk all the time about centerlines. They are always producing them, or processing them, or importing them, or sharing them; centerlines are a kind of core currency in mapmaking. For commercial maps, centerlines can be a starting point to create or correct a fully dimensional road out of probe data that shows the flow of traffic. This is a big deal for accurate routing, as you can imagine. You can also add centerlines to linear shapes such as rivers to help make sure their banks are in the right place and to confirm the direction of the flow of the water. These are just two of many use cases.
Basically, if you know the centerline, you can use mathematics to produce a map, and this plus the fact that a great circle is the largest circle that can be drawn in any sphere and can be used to help airplanes (or missiles) get from here to there, is about as much as I know about topology and the mathematics of polyhedra.
It’s enough, though. Just this small bit of analytic geometry has changed how I see the shapes of the chartable world, and I was thinking about this stuff as I looked south across the forbidding beauty of Saguaro National Park: about how boundaries are drawn and corrected in maps and how borders are drawn and disputed and defended, about the different things we do to try to restore meaning and direction when we feel lost, alone, or afraid.
The centerline of this particular weekend, I realized, was survival.
Survival is why we make maps and also missiles.
There was an orthogonal, too. It is the line of human connection that we stitch together from the bits and pieces of relationships that we form with fellow travelers.
Here are the wounds and vulnerabilities that we carry around as we try to survive the desert.
Here is the laughter and pleasure we have with our friends as we locate and relocate ourselves in airplanes and on highways, inside bunkers and under pavilions at museums, across high tables under twinkling string lights, around mezcal bars and conference halls, forming and reforming our human shapes inside of time and space and in defiance of the certainty of death.
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