Success in Cartography

Cartographer’s Story #4, by Ross Thorn

“To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I had the opportunity to speak at my high school graduation, and decided to talk about success. I used a quote, from which the excerpt above is taken, as the cornerstone of my philosophy, and it still resonates with me today. Helping other people is by far my favorite measure of success.

However, in some cases, there is little we can do to help someone when they need it most. And it hurts.

I was in class when I received word from my mom that my dad had been admitted to the hospital for “stroke-like” symptoms.

My father had a cerebrovascular accident, otherwise known as a stroke, in the fall of 2014. I was in the process of achieving a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. I was in class when I received word from my mom that my dad had been admitted to the hospital for “stroke-like” symptoms. I was confused. I was scared. I felt powerless. I couldn’t do anything to help him.

The stroke was caused by a combination of excessive smoking and drinking. These problems had surfaced before in different forms, but sometimes “lessons learned” don’t stick, especially when one is blessed with little to no lasting damage. After all, a totaled truck is replaceable. But one’s life is not.

My father, thankfully, survived the stroke. He escaped with a lot more than many stroke victims do. He still had full movement. He still had his ability to eat, drink, and speak. He still had his life.

All was not perfect, however. Initially, he couldn’t even remember what we were all speaking about a minute before. He didn’t know where he was and he didn’t know how he got there. He didn’t know who the president was.

“Dad, do you know what year it is?”
He would pause. “1991?”
“Dad, I wasn’t even born in 1991,” I chuckled.
“Aw, s***.”

Some of it seemed humorous at the time, and we would all laugh despite (or because of) the stressful situation. But as this conversation repeated every 2 minutes, ending with him in tears, it became a lot less funny. I was scared that this was going to be his life.

The doctor told us that the stroke affected areas of the brain that process memory and vision (ignore my lack of knowledge in biology; I just know that these two things were affected the most). He became colorblind and face-blind (he can see everything on one’s face but just can’t recognize them at all). He also lost a huge amount of memory and memory capacity. After the stroke, he had to write everything down or he’d forget. He also lost memories of the past few years. My brother’s basketball games and a trip to Italy were gone from his mind. Luckily, pictures and videos exist to fill those in. But they can never really fulfill the experience of it all.

With these new memory limitations, he could not do everything he was once able to do. Although physically well and able, he could not remember simple tasks involved with daily life and involved with his work. In the summer, my dad would work on construction projects, attempting to stay busy as a self-employed excavator. In the winter, he would plow snow for private residences and businesses in the area.

Winter was right around the corner and my father was still struggling with a simple game of memory (you know, the one with facedown cards where you have to flip them and match two pictures). How was he going to find his way around? A GPS was out of the question; even before the stroke, my dad needed help using a flip phone. I finally saw my chance to help him overcome his newly found limitations: mapping was the answer.

I was excited! I was finally able to help my dad after all that had happened. I implemented all I knew into making a useful map for my dad that would allow him to do the things that brought him security and joy. With his recent condition, I think he yearned to feel useful again. And so did I. It was (and still is) hard for me to see someone I love struggle with tasks that I can do without having the ability to enable them to do it themselves.


As you can see, my final product was quite lackluster (customer locations have been removed for anonymity). I knew the product wasn’t great at the time: the cartography is poor and the points and labels might have even been too small for him to see (you can pick it apart more if you wish; I know I have). I needed to help him in the only way I could without being there.

I needed to help him in the only way I could without being there.

I had the maps printed and laminated, and gave them to my dad the next time my parents visited. Along with a big hug.

I don’t know if he regularly used them or not. When I was home, I would ride around with him on his route to help him find the addresses. The maps I made helped me to connect to my dad after his stroke. I know that he appreciated it as well. The customer list dwindled down significantly (probably for his benefit). Although his memory and vision are improving and he no longer needs my maps, I still hope he keeps them with him and thinks of the love and effort I put into them.

Whether I become a well-published cartographer with maps going viral every other week or I end up creating maps for my friends and family, I just hope that my maps make lasting impressions on who they are intended for and possibly make their lives a little easier. If I can do that, then I know I’ll find success as a cartographer.