Why I Create

Cartographer’s Story #6, by Jay Mahabal

My freshman year of college I sent a dumb, pretentious email to a Geography professor on campus asking him for advice on how to learn GIS. I don’t think I even really knew what GIS was at the time, but I knew that I wanted to make maps.

I used to love reading fantasy books as a kid, from Lord of the Rings to Redwall. Most of these novels contained maps to help guide the journey, describing not just the physical geography, but the paths that our adventurers took. Usually the map was more interesting than the story itself, especially since the story had one path but the map had dozens of regions to explore. In Redwall, for example, each book of the series had a slightly different map that emphasized certain regions or locations, depending on the plot. Only by buying and reading all the books would you truly learn the landscape (that’s how they get ya).

Map from the Redwall series, http://www.geocities.ws/redwallhq/

It was a lot of fun reading a book and pausing mid-chapter, flipping back to the first page to locate where the main characters were and what they were going to encounter next.

I’ve been very lucky that my parents used to take us to National Parks for our family vacation and that I got to experience the cartographic beauty that are National Park Service maps. The walls of my room, and later my dorm, were often covered with these. These maps, containing places that I’d both visited and hadn’t yet visited, served as reminders, telling me that there were giant worlds out there to explore and return to.

Yellowstone National Park, http://npmaps.com/

After talking to that professor in Office Hours I ended up enrolling in his “Introduction to Cartography” course, where we used Adobe Illustrator to make maps. For my final project, I created a choropleth of the home counties of University of California students, trying to investigate if they were more likely to stay near home (answer: it depended on the university in question).

Geography 183 Fall 2013 Final Project, Jay Mahabal

You can download a .pdf version of my project on my website, but there’s another copy, printed out on 13′ x 24′ high-quality paper, hanging on my wall next to my other maps. Being able to put my own work next to these maps that I admired so much was among the proudest moments of my life.

Of course, the pain of creating small multiple choropleths in Illustrator eventually led me to learn to code, and I don’t know if I’ll ever print out a map again. But that first map, that feeling of finally being a peer with your inspirations and idols, reminds me why I create.