We have rebuilt the Slea Head Adventures page we created last October—expanded it greatly, given it its own domain. It is called Hilltops, and it now contains more than one (hilltop). It is to be an ongoing project. Please enjoy.
I get lost a lot. I don’t have a phone with digital maps and I don’t often have the printed versions either. We carried my father’s OSI (Ordinance Survey of Ireland) maps up hills we climbed this summer, and I greatly enjoyed the clarity and context they provided. Each peak we reached, the map would show the name, the height. Even in a place I know so well, there was a lot more to know.
Maps are everywhere, now. Really everywhere. Before they became so digitally pervasive it was usual to have a few printed ones in the door of the car. To consult them on holidays and drives into the unknown. What was a map? The county, the country. Whatever fits on the sheet. We use maps a lot more often now, but their nature has changed. The map is tailored for the individual but presented through the global framework, and something is lost in the median view. The locality is simplified towards both these ends. A map that only tells you where you want to go will never show you what you might be missing.
What strikes me when I look at the Google map of the Dingle Peninsula is how little the map conveys of the place. What’s even stranger is its attempt to commercialise something that is, in my head and heart, almost immune to it. Search for “Dingle Peninsula” in Google Maps and the pin lands on a bed and breakfast that uses its name. The B&B is incorrectly placed, a proud little dot in a featureless expanse of grey, a mile from the nearest road. Zoom out and the roads appear, the blue lake shapes, the sea’s edge, a brush-daub hint at mountains. Still you’re not looking at anything like a view of the place. There is no topography. The names are often wrong or wrongly placed. The satellite view button offers a faultless aerial collage that is undeniable and also strangely uncommunicative. The colours look off, the beaches and the rocks lie just beyond reach—the world through reversed binoculars. Street view is, of course, the most immersive, the most rich of these button options. But it is trapped on the road. It is trapped on the road on a sunny day in September, and there is no crueller place on earth to be confined to what you can see from a car.
I don’t mean to dismiss these things. They are huge, beautiful, fascinating resources. My appreciation for Internet maps will never diminish. But when I long for West Kerry (it is the only place that I ever truly long for), they do little to satisfy that yearning. They seem distant, fuzzy, contextless, like a foreigner explaining my country to me from an article he once read. All data, no salt on the tongue.
In many ways my father’s OSI maps improve on digital roadmaps without ever showing a photograph of anything. Everything on the map is representational, but the contour lines show clearly the curves and humps of the hills, each peak is marked by a black ponc with a height in metres. Rivers, streams, walking paths, roads, backroads. Everything is somehow there, accounted for. A clarity that goes beyond my understanding.
Hilltops is not a map. Or maybe it is. I don’t know what it is. What I know is that from the top of a hill you see a view, and it is magnificent. But once you reach the top of the next hill and you look back, something fundamental happens. Once you begin to see each distant peak as a place that you have once stood, and you can locate yourself through days and through years on those peaks and on a hundred paths in between. In every weather, in every state of mind. There is a richness in it that is inarticulable. A map can’t convey it, and a contextless photograph can’t. And Hilltops can’t, of course. But it’s some kind of a clumsy attempt all the same.