Mapping (Geo-)Autobiography: Travel

A lot of travelers — and especially geographers — like to keep track of numbers of places they’ve been…. countries, states, continents, capitals, everything. It’s a nice way to reflect upon past experiences, and yes, of course, brag to one’s friends about those travels.

A couple of my colleagues, Nick Wise and Emily Fekete, produced what they called “County Life Maps” earlier this year, highlighting the counties they had visited in the United States, and urged me to do the same. I was more than willing to oblige, and so I came up with this (kind of hideous looking) map to share with them, showing that I had visited 1340 counties in 46 states:

I know, not my best cartographic work, but it was done in a half-hour’s time using an open-source GIS on OSX (that was back before I discovered Parallels and was still experimenting with that stuff).

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the importance of autobiographical geographies (“geoautobiographies?”) and how they shape personal experience, memory and perception. It is difficult to write about these geoautobiographies without going into tremendous depth because sharing the full richness of a personal sensory experience is a difficult task to verbally express.

So, I thought, what about making some maps? I’ve done it a little bit in my brief exercise in impressionist geography (“50 States, 50 Words“) and well…. making maps to express an autobiographical experience — in this case, travel — isn’t too easy. Sure, the map above shows counties that I’ve visited. It doesn’t show where I’ve visited in those counties, how often I’ve visited those counties, how long I spent there, or how recently I had visited. It’s a pretty one-dimensional display in that way. Okay for what it is, but it needs more detail.

Now, to be fair, I couldn’t add more detail to these displays at the county level without spending a considerable amount of time and energy, doing significant autoethnographic research with my family, recording each vacation and each trip with impossibly significant detail that memory simply doesn’t permit. So, I’ve zoomed out to the state level for this little exercise in geoautobiographical cartographic visualization, and used states in the U.S. Sure, I’ve been outside the U.S., but I am fairly proud of my depth of travels within this country.

So, let’s start out with states I’ve visited. Simple enough:

Black means yes, light gray means no, easiest map to ever make. I’ve been to 46 out of 48 states. I’m hoping to get to New Hampshire and Maine this summer. Alaska and Hawaii are probably more distantly in the future. Of course, this map suffers from the same problem as the “County Life Map” in that the data is treated as a container binary — meaning, the map either has a “yes” or a “no,” with no room for additional detail in terms of spatial differentiation, frequency, or temporal occurrence.  I made it this ugly ugly black to point out the flaw of this binary.  In other words, a state I lived in for 24 years (Indiana) gets the same symbology as states I visited once for 35 minutes (Delaware).

How to remedy? How about looking at intention behind the visit.

Obviously, the number of options have increased, though I’ve used a qualitative symbology again because it’s difficult to make an intention quantitative. Instead of two classes, I’ve got four: have lived there, have visited as a destination, have visited but not as a destination, or have not visited. Part of the goal of choropleth maps, though, is to differentiate spatial data. In this case, over 75% of our data points are in the same class: states I’ve visited as a destination.

Let’s go quantitative, then. How about number of visits, which I’ve reckoned from an approximation of number of times I’ve set foot in the state. It’s a difficult thing to put together, though my memory of travels is probably better than any autobiographical memory, and in some cases these are best guess estimates.

Now, looking at this map, a couple of things stick out to me. For one, it just doesn’t feel right. Most experienced cartographers will tell you that, if they’re familiar enough with the data, the map has to present that data in a way that “feels” right. That’s one reason I think that cartography course should never, EVER be eliminated by GIS courses, but I digress. Point is, this doesn’t pass the feel test. Why? Number of visits seems to privilege proximity to home; indeed, small trips or even the running of errands can easily take someone to a neighboring state. At the same time, though, it also privileges drive-through states. I’m not saying these states are like McDonald’s, it’s just that some of these states (Tennessee, Georgia) just happen to be on the routes to destination points (Florida) and hence received two visits from me during each family vacation. One reason it doesn’t feel right, though, is that much of the traveling I did, especially as a child, was to drive somewhere and stay at that destination for a week or more. In this case, those destinations only get one visit per trip, even though the experience of being there measures far more in my autobiographic narrative. So, let’s look at how many times each state was a destination for a trip.

This map is a bit more reflective of my travel patterns, I think, because it manages to display that quality of intention in a quantitative fashion (number of visits). But then again, I think this is too raw. Sure, Kentucky may have been my destination seven times, but I’ve been there many many more times. Shouldn’t the fact that most of my visits to Kentucky are drive-throughs impact how I look at the state? Sure. So, here’s a map looking at percentage of times each state was a destination, out of total visits.

But I’m still not happy with it, because it doesn’t necessarily speak to how much impact the state had on me during my visit. Certainly the five destination-aimed trips to South Dakota are significant, but isn’t it more significant that I’ve chosen to spend 51 days of my life there during those four visits?

So, let’s try number of days spent in each state. Again, details are fuzzy, so in some cases, it’s an estimate, though I’m pretty confident in those estimates:

Now, this map “feels” much better. Florida and Colorado are lit up significantly, as they should be. Family vacations to Nevada, Washington DC, Michigan and Chicago also show up. Okay, maybe I should account for the fact that, after I made the effort to visit these places, I obviously spent different amounts of time in each. To do this, I went ahead and figured the number of days per visit, to combine the two quantitative maps into one normalized data set:

I like this one as well, because it highlights some important trips in my life. Sure, the old favorites of Florida and Colorado are still apparent, but now too are the longer times I’ve spent in the southwest, which was particularly important to forming my world views during my adolescence. These maps aren’t bad…. but they’re not everything either. Though South Dakota and Iowa also show up strongly (as they should; I spent 30 days in each for music camps during high school) they do not reflect the fact that it’s been a significant period of time since those long stays (South Dakota in 1998, Iowa in 1999).

So, now to add the temporal aspect. Year of last visit is the first step:

Of course, as is expected, it gives us nothing for frequency, but everything for currency.

I can add one detail to it, and that’s the qualitative attribute of intention. Here is a a map showing year of last visit as a destination, as that second step:

In each of these maps, you can clearly see my major trips for the year: Indiana to visit family, Washington DC for AAG 2010, Pittsburgh for our anniversary, and Kansas for GPRMAAG and to visit Emily.

But are these the most current? Because we are talking about experience, mental mapping and perception, shouldn’t I also include considerations for places I have concrete plans for visiting during 2011? That certainly affects how I’m thinking about places and even perceiving them.

This one shows the states I’ve already made plans, ones that are pretty much concrete, for visiting in 2011:

Yeah, it looks like I’ve got a busy year coming up, and I do…. but many of those states that I’m visiting in 2011 are a result of the long-way trip we’re taking to get to AAG 2011 in Seattle (Amtrak to San Francisco, rental car up the coast to Seattle with some dear friends, then Amtrak back to Cleveland). Everything else is from probable conferences. Of course, one of the very plans I mentioned way back at the beginning (a trip to New Hampshire and Maine, to finish out the lower 48 on my list) isn’t highlighted because it’s not set in concrete just yet.

Once again, though, the future plans map, like the visits map, prioritizes drive-through (or in this case, rail-through) states. What if it’s destinations only?

(Cartographic notes: All data classes broken using Jenks Natural Breaks Optimization method of classification, and colors provided for my colorblind ass by the incredible ColorBrewer resource. The base map is one I personally made a very, very long time ago.)

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

6 thoughts on “Mapping (Geo-)Autobiography: Travel”

  1. Andy,
    Awesome maps. You really exemplify the importance of proper cartographic and analysis techniques! I noticed on the third map (lived in v visited as destination/not destination) that Long Island is symbolized differently than the rest of NY state. Minor detail, but as a fellow geographer I felt compelled to point this out. How’d that happen?
    Again, awesome geoautobiography!

  2. Thanks Christina! Don’t you remember the great Long Island Invasion of 2007, in which Connecticut annexed everything east of Brooklyn and Queens? Actually, I got nothing. It’s fixed now, though!

  3. Hi Andy, I enjoyed these maps.
    Basic question about making maps like these: What tool did you use to make them? ArcGIS? Or something simpler and Web-based?

  4. Hi Big Hazel,

    Thanks for your nice note.

    I used Adobe Illustrator CS5 to make the maps, using a base map of the states that I adapted (for cartographic purposes) quite some time ago from Census TIGER Data in ArcGIS. I also used Color Brewer — — to come up with the color schemes.

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