wessex

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

There are places that we have heard of, read of,  perhaps even seen on a map, but they don’t exist. Or, at least, they don’t exist in the world we walk through today.

These places appeal to me. You are reading now about a place called Paradelle that exists online but cannot be found (yet) on maps.  Imaginary places have fascinated me since I was a kid. It started with places in novels (like Treasure Island) which led me to love maps, which led me to draw and write about my own imaginary places.

When I was teaching middle school, I had my students create maps of the fictional settings of novels they read. Even if the setting was a “real” place or based on a real place, the maps needed things that you wouldn’t find on existing maps – the empty lot or the church that burns down in The Outsiders; the roads and ranches in Of Mice and Men; Scout Finch’s hometown and Boo’s tree in To Kill a Mockingbird or where Romeo, Juliet, Benvolio or Friar Lawrence lives in Shakespeare’s play.

I started a novel years ago that was set in Camptown, New Jersey. That is a town that did exist on maps at one time. It changed its name to Irvington. But my Camptown is a blended town that mixed my hometown of Irvington with other places I have lived along with things I wish were included in the place where I live. The river that runs through the town is all the rivers and creeks and streams I have known. It is the Elizabeth River that I knew as a boy, the Peckman River that runs through where I now live and the Passaic River that cuts across New Jersey and is sourced from a now-swampy glacial lake that dinosaurs edged up to for a drink and that spills over the Great Falls in Paterson and on to Newark Bay, New York Harbor, the Hudson River and out to the Atlantic Ocean.  As I wandered the Lenape trails around me as a child and adult, stories were always coming to me.

All this came to mind recently when I saw ads for the new film Paper Towns which is based on a novel by John Green. (You’ll see it labeled as a “young adult”[YA] novel, but that is a term I never liked. Are Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird YA novels just because they are often read by young adults?) Green is a very popular novelist with teenagers, but a lot of adults know his writing either from his book, The Fault in Our Stars, or the the film version of his book.

John Green tweetedCelebrating the release of #papertowns with a road trip to a place that wasn’t, then was, then wasn’t, and now…is?”

In that novel, Quentin loves, loses and searches for Margo.  Clues lead Q to believe that Margo may be possibly hiding out or buried in one of the many abandoned subdivision projects or “pseudovisions” around Orlando, Florida. Those turn out to be dead ends, but he does find a map he found in an abandoned strip mall which he connects with another map he made in an attempt to locate her.

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Fictional copyright trap Agloe, New York shown on a real 1998 Exxon (American map) state map of New York, United States.

He matches up the holes from the pushpins in the mall map to his map and this leads him to believe that she is hiding in Agloe, New York.  He and some friends skip graduation and head to Agloe to find her.

Agloe is a fictional place in Delaware County, New York, that became an actual landmark, if not a real town. In the 1930s, two mapmakers (Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers) made an anagram of their initials and placed it as a town on the intersection of NY 206 and Morton Hill Road, north of the real town of Roscoe, New York.

Were they merry pranksters? No. The town was meant as a copyright trap. Mapmakers often place a fictitious place on their maps so that if someone plagiarized it, they have a way to easily check.

However, in the 1950s, a general store was built at that intersection and was named the Agloe General Store.

agloe store-001The fictional town appeared on Esso gas station road maps that were widely distributed. Agloe appeared on a Rand McNally map and Esso (now Exxon) threatened to sue Rand McNally for copyright infringement. But that never happened because Rand McNally pointed out that the place had now become “real” and therefore no infringement could be established.

That store went out of business, but Agloe continued to appear on maps until about 25 years ago when it was deleted. Interestingly, it appears in Google Maps and the very official United States Geological Survey added “Agloe (Not Official)” to the Geographic Names Information System database in February 2014.

Places that aren’t there are nothing new and there are lots of examples.  There are the ones created by writers, such as Stephen King’s Castle Rock and Derry, Maine and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. In my abandoned novel, I considered placing Camptown in the county of Wessex in New Jersey as the western portion of the real county of Essex.

There are also places created by mapmakers.  Besides the paper towns, another copyright-protection technique is to include a “trap street” on a map. This fictitious street on a map, often outside the area the map nominally covers, has also been used as a way of trapping copyright violators. Alternatives are nonexistent towns, rivers or perhaps a mountain with the intentionally wrong elevation inserted for the same purpose. Of course, you don’t want to add something that confuses users or just looks like an unintentional mistake. The mapmaker may add nonexistent bends to a street, or depict a major street as a narrow lane, without changing its location or its connections to other streets.

Phantom settlements are settlements that appear on maps but do not actually exist. They can be accidents or copyright traps. Some examples are Argleton, Lancashire, UK and Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio, USA.

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The Zeno map of 1558 showing Frisland – a phantom island in the North Atlantic

As a lover of islands, I have always had an interest in “phantom islands.”  They are islands that appeared on maps for a period of time (sometimes centuries) during recorded history, but were later removed after it was proven not to exist.

These are not copyright traps. They often came from reports of early sailors exploring new waters. Some were purely mythical, such as the Isle of Demons or Atlantis. Sometimes actual islands were mislocated or just a plain old mistake. The Baja California Peninsula appears on some early maps as an island but was later discovered to be attached to the mainland of North America. Some phantom islands were probably due to navigational errors, misidentification of icebergs, or optical illusions due to fog or poor conditions.

An interesting subset are islands that existed and were destroyed by volcanic explosions, earthquakes, submarine landslides, or rising waters and erosion. Pactolus Bank, visited by Sir Francis Drake, may fit into this category.

Pactolus Bank (AKA Burnham Bank) was discovered by Captain W.D. Burnham on the American ship Pactolus on November 6, 1885. They postulated that this was the sunken location of Elizabeth Island, discovered by Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hinde in 1578. Drake anchored off an island which he named “Elizabeth Island,” (for Queen Elizabeth I) where wood and water was collected and seals and penguins captured for food, along with “herbs of great virtue.” According to Drake’s pilot, their position at the anchorage was 57°S. However, no island has been confirmed at that latitude.

Elizabeth Island, off the southern tip of South America, might be a good setting for another novel, or for Paradelle.


John Green talks about finding Agloe on an old Esso road map

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