It caused something of a stir last month when Google Maps—the all-knowing, all-seeing, digital map encyclopedia and navigation tool—tacitly admitted they’d been suckered by a cartographic ruse dating back 90 years and removed the “town” of Agloe, New York, from their database. It was newsworthy enough in its own right that the almighty infallible Google admitted they’d goofed, but the real shocker behind the story was more far-reaching in its implications. It was the explanation of how a town could be fabricated entirely in the imagination of a mapmaker, appear in print, and continue to be reproduced on maps for generations. If you can’t trust a cartographer, who the hell can you trust?
The explanation, it turns out, is that back in the day, cartographers fearful of copyright infringement on their efforts inserted red herrings—fictions, figments, Brigadoons, Bumfuqs and other prank sites—to allow them to quickly determine if their copyright was being infringed by seeing whether or not their works of pure fancy found their way onto other mapmakers’ products.
They’re now referred to as “paper towns” and how many still appear in references as legitimate is anyone’s guess. I’d never heard of them before, so for me, an avowed cartophile, and trusting soul when it comes to something as essential and fundamental to a touring biker as accurate route and resource information, it was a moment of apostasy; an ah-hah moment that transported me back 20 years when, had I not been so blindly trusting of the integrity of the cartographic arts, I would have called bullshit on the “town” of Majors Place, Nevada—or Major’s Place, or Majors Junction, or Major’s Station or Majors Station or, frankly, East Bumfuq, depending on your source.
Let me explain.
Back in 1993, in those primordial pre-digital days when the Internet, cell phones, GPS and the rest of it were still just pure sci-fi with a dash of Dick Tracy, My Personal Nurse and I—she on her 1992 1200XL, myself the faithful ’87 FLHS—were riding cross-country, running the length of lonesome Highway 50 to visit family in Glenwood Springs, and continuing from there to visit family in northern Michigan, and ultimately landing in South Dakota for the Black Hills Rally. Back then I relied for route planning and reference on the maps from Triple-A, the most authoritative and comprehensive collection of detailed maps available. And I was a thorough planner.
Two and a half days to Glenwood, overnighting in Fallon, Nevada, and Delta, Utah, on the way. Wishful thinking, as it turned out, and a late start put us off the itinerary immediately. We stayed in Sparks the first night, but figured to make a long day of it the following, and still make our motel reservation in Delta that night. A bad battery ground and an extended mid-desert interlude with a Nevada state cop in an immense black air-conditioned Chevy Suburban cruiser (that, ironically, earned us matching $15 “wasting fuel” citations for going 80 mph on the Loneliest Road in America, paid in cash on the spot).
It was a blistering hot and interminably long day in the saddle and by the time we hit Ely, Nevada, we were done in. Our fuel tanks were nearly dry, but we were spent and decided to refuel before leaving town in the morning.
Ely’s a casino town, naturally, and never sleeps—except for the gas station attendants who, apparently, keep banker’s hours. When we saddled up at 7:00 a.m. to make the final desolate 560-mile push to our destination, not a single gas station had yet to open.
Not to worry, I assured My Personal Nurse, having pulled out my AAA Nevada map and spotted the prominent town of “Major’s Place” at the prominent crossroads of Highway 50 and Highway 93, two of the major (albeit sclerotic) travel arteries in that woebegone precinct of the desert. Certainly there would be gasoline. We would fuel up there and soldier on. No problemo.
Problemo. Major’s Place turned out to be nothing more than a sun-bleached ruin of a roadhouse from another time; tattered curtains wafting through glassless window casements, and not a soul in evidence anywhere about. There was also not a single vehicle on the road, and the stillness was deafening. Even the birds—if there were any in that parched landscape—were keeping mum. We’d gone maybe 30 miles and My Personal Nurse was on reserve—all 0.4 gallons of it. I was just shy of reserve and had a good 0.8 gallons of gas to my name, but between the two of us we didn’t have the fuel to get both bikes back to Ely, or on to the more promising prospect of Baker, Utah.
And yet in that moment it somehow didn’t matter. We were in bar-none the most magnificent landscape I’d ever witnessed; an infinity of scenic vistas with Mount Wheeler towering above us surreally lit by the pure, morning desert sun. I recall it vividly to this day. I took a picture of it with my soul because I knew my camera couldn’t capture it. I pulled my Nikon out momentarily, and put it back just as quickly, realizing some tableaus defy the lens and can only be captured by the spirit.
Trusting in my road karma and the mercy the road gods have always accorded me, we just went for it, heading out Highway 50 towards Utah secure in the knowledge that we would either make it or find ourselves in a real fix. And 10 miles later at the turnoff for a dirt road to the ghost town of Osceola there it stood: a hand-lettered sign saying simply “Gas.” And there a pair of enterprising good-ole-boys had a pump in their yard and were dispensing fuel. I practically kissed the nozzle as I filled up on what must have been about 81 octane, if you didn’t count the water and kerosene. But what the hell, the stuff was flammable and that’s absolutely all that mattered at that moment in the middle of nowhere.
It’s all right here in the diaries…