This is one of my favorite images from my recent honeymoon road trip, 3.5-weeks of touring through 14 states between Maryland and New Mexico. I took the photo just off the Interstate in southern Illinois, near the end of our trip. We had stopped at a visitor information center to get a state map to add to our collection. Even though we weren’t going to spend much time in Illinois this time around, we made a point of getting road maps from all the states we touched.
I love road maps, and not only for the information they offer about geography, hydrology, topography, demography, and history of a region. They excite me. They’re the temptress, beckoning all of us who relish the art of discovery. They provide hints and suggestions of what might we might find in a particular place, but they don’t tell us everything. They fuel our imagination in subtle ways, but unlike realistic photographs, artful representations, or tales of experience, they leave many details unrevealed. It’s up to us to add color and familiarity to their sketchy outlines.
For similar reasons, I like the sculpture in this photo. First though, I’m attracted to it because of its whimsy, its topsy-turvy nature. We’re so used to seeing individual signs placed in orderly fashion. And normally, letters and images appear on a horizontal plane, strategically placed to maximize their utility. But here they’re not where or how we expect them, and we realize that we’re looking at art. It makes us chuckle, and we no longer look to the signs for their usefulness.
I like the sculpture because it represents many things that I love: movement, as well as the cessation of movement; knowledge and the sharing of information; the mobility of people in the U.S. (which, yes, focuses on our automobile-dependent culture, something that I don’t endorse unequivocally); and the services and assistance we provide to travelers and seekers. It connotes a penchant for exploration, for getting to know the world and for seeking to understand it.
The monument of signs also makes me realize how dependent I can be on signs. They tell me where I am and prepare me for what’s to come. When I see them, I feel reassured and also energized by the thought of what I might find if I follow their indications. Signs not only encourage travel, exploration, and wonderment, but they also offer promises. Like maps, they reveal little detail, but their existence guarantees that there is something to be found. And, for travelers who are curious, but wary of uncertainty and great unknowns, the existence of road signs is a boon.
But, when I think about many of my own travel experiences, I realize that the most memorable and exciting trips have been those where there were no signs, where unearthing the unexpected was the thrill factor. And, the education. When I venture into the Amazon basin or to the high páramos of the Andes, there are few road markers or visitor information centers. I go at the mercy of those who have been there before, trusting that their reasons for making the voyage are at least sufficient for me. And, indeed, with few preconceptions I pay closer attention, and I experience with all my senses.
Have you considered what type of traveler you are? Do you seek adventure in roadless, signless areas? Do you relish making discoveries and finding surprises? The tours I offer include unexpected revelation. We seek to encounter corners of the world where there is no interstate and where public libraries don’t exist. Once there, we rely on our own observations to create personal roadmaps based on our experiences. That gets me wondering what kind of sculptures would result if we produced a collage of signs representing the unmapped and unsigned destinations of the world….