In 1952, rural Nebraskans encountered an extraordinary sight: an Army chaplain and his 11-year-old nephew zipping around the state in a silver Jaguar convertible.
“People in Nebraska never saw such a thing as an open-topped sports car!” Robert Berlo, the nephew, told me last spring from his home in Livermore, Calif.
Berlo didn’t inherit his uncle’s love of flash: He bought four cars in his lifetime, three of them white Toyota Camrys. But that long-ago Nebraska adventure sparked a lifelong obsession with cartography and a love of stringently organized road trips.
“We went flying through this little town called Elm Creek, and I saw a sign on the crossroad that said ‘U.S. Highway 183,’” Berlo recalled. “The only time in my life that I’ve seen an unpaved U.S. numbered highway.” It was, in fact, the last U.S. highway to be completely paved.
Berlo’s uncle planned the trip using a system his nephew would later adopt. Daily itineraries detailed on index cards noted stopping and starting points, roadside attractions and town populations—a reliable gauge for how likely a town is to have a gas station or ice cream shop. “I didn’t want to miss anything,” he said.
Berlo died last summer of cancer, at age 71. One of his last projects was finding a permanent home for the immense collection of maps he collected and often used on those road trips and elsewhere. He succeeded: The 13,000 items, immaculately catalogued, now reside in Stanford University’s Branner Earth Sciences Library. They include every official state road map from 1929 to the present, plus U.S. Forest Service, topographic, regional and city maps.
Few think to save roadmaps; we prize only current ones. Yet Berlo amassed an unexpected data jackpot. His maps, says Jon Christensen, an environmental historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, are snapshots of how America has viewed its past, present and future. On the cover of a 1973 map, for instance, Lady Liberty’s lamp shines in concentric circles; clouds issue from Mississippi steamboats in lush, curling locks; and Mount Rushmore’s presidents are—I swear—sporting Afros. It’s a psychedelic, utopian vision of America.
Berlo’s map trove is being put to good use. Stanford political scientist Clayton Nall plans to study the maps to help link the rise of suburbs to increasing political polarization. And Christensen is using them for his CityNature project, which studies how Los Angeles and San Francisco set aside parks and open space. “As the population of the planet grows,” Christensen says, “we know that means expanding the built urban environment. How that happens profoundly affects how well people live—with each other and nature. By comparing cities’ (pasts), we can, I think, develop some guidelines to help shape city planning in the future.”
Christensen adds: “We think that in the age of Google all information lies beneath our fingertips. But historians still spend days doing archival work. These maps hold information that is not contained anywhere else.”
Berlo was more than a collector; he was a dreamer. In the 1990s, he began creating imaginary maps, using the real geography of a place as the foundation for an invented city. “I began (this hobby) entranced by New Mexico’s mesas,” recalled Berlo. “A city on top of a mesa would be like New York or San Francisco, hemmed in by a natural boundary.”
For his first project, he downloaded topographic maps of Colfax County, N.M.’s Johnson Mesa, and allowed himself to change one natural parameter for the nascent city––giving New Mexico a wetter climate to make it more habitable. “Once you’ve made that imaginary change, then you can start working. So what happens first? Explorers come through.”
He created a new map for each decade. His city might begin with an explorers’ trail and a few scattered mines. In a few years, settlers might make a wagon trail and erect a few buildings. Then come the railroad, streetcars, airports and highways. To decide how his city would have fared during the Great Depression, Berlo looked to Las Cruces and Albuquerque. “Did they grow at all? Did they decline?” He named the cities and suburbs he created for local features, and added schools, hospitals, universities and public transit, based on population. “It all has to be in there, because it affects the street pattern.”
After his cancer diagnosis, however, Berlo gave up imaginary map-making to focus on his family. His funeral was held in Livermore, Calif., where 200 attendees viewed a photo board showing Berlo’s high school graduation and his marriage to Juanita, his wife of 43 years. There were shots of him holding his sons and grandchildren, playing pool and hiking.
They were all pasted atop a California state roadmap.
This story originally appeared in High Country News.