John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Where the early 1990s Scottish rockers could walk, if they actually walked 500 miles and then 500 more.
Much of the world is aware that the Proclaimers would walk 500 miles – and onto that slog tack an extra 500 more – to collapse at the door of the person they love. Their six-month stint on the American Billboard singles chart in 1993 is a testament to their machinelike willingness to destroy foot tendons just to find their life-partner for sleeping, getting drunk, and "havering" (Scottish slang for "talking rubbish," always a crucial component in relationships).
But while "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" does a great job of laying out the folk-rockers' intentions to complete the full thou', it is lousy about providing the specifics of their journey. What direction are they walking, for instance – south toward London, or north to the frigid, rocky shores of the far Highlands? Then there's the problem that if they walked 500 x 2 miles in a straight line from any point in the U.K., they'd hit water. Would they stop and reconsider their travel plans (buy a jet-ski, perhaps)? Or would they keep on walking straight into the briny waves, plodding along the ocean floor to some remote island where their seagull poo-splattered lover is waiting?
It's a catchy song, but it leaves so many questions! Fortunately, there's a guy hard on the case to unravel its mysteries. Kenneth Field is a 40-something cartographic product engineer in Southern California who's made a fun map showing all the places the band could walk to in a 360 degree field if they began in Leith, the birthplace of twin-brother singers Craig and Charlie Reid.
The map is actually a tongue-in-cheek criticism of another cartographic effort (yes, there have been at least two) to plot where in heck the Proclaimers were headed. Hazel McKendrick created an earlier version that neglected to take into account the Mercator projection's distortion of geography. Field's project corrects the walking radii and "applies knowledge of how maps work to make a sensible, correct map... even though the theme is distinctly daft and I still hate the song with a passion." Here it is:
The circles show where the Proclaimers could have made it if they developed the ability to fly, with orange being "500 miles" and yellow "500 more." The colored-in regions give a more realistic idea of where they might've gotten walking on Europe's network of roads and ferries. Note that the band conceivably would opt to use ferries to reach mainland Europe, a foul because "they may have sat down."
Via email, Field explains why he took time out of his day to draft this ridiculous thing. "So many of what you might call viral maps these days have dreadful cartographic or analytical mistakes that most people probably aren't aware of," he says. "If I and others can in some small way contribute to raising awareness that some maps are just not constructed well (and hence you get a totally misrepresented impression) then that's a good thing."
This evolved look at the Proclaimers' classic ode to ambulation – which this week topped Reddit's MapPorn thread – is part of a small series of what Field calls "lyric maps." For those curious about his next offering, it's an homage to U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," showing in dull gold 3.5 million road segments in the contiguous U.S. with no formal title:
About this particular map, Field writes:
The overall pattern suggests that it's streets in rural areas that have no name. Pretty much all the major cities appear dark indicating a low number of streets with no name. This makes sense...the dataset contains every road in the U.S. and many of them would be dirt tracks. Despite there being over 3 million separate segments on this map there isn't much sense looking at the detail for a particular city...there are so few it makes the map sparse as the following larger scale map of California illustrates.
Being a serious-minded cartographer, Field did not plan for his flippant '80s-song projects to gather a wide audience. But he'll take the attention as a compliment, he says:
[The Proclaimers map] and the U2 map are probably the most frivolous pieces of work I've ever done...they took no time at all yet they are arguably getting more exposure than my other, serious, quality work. As a former Professor of 20 years in the U.K. and someone who teaches, presents at conferences worldwide, edits an international journal (The Cartographic Journal), is active as Chair of the International Cartographic Association on Map Design it's odd to see daft maps get exposure but hey, if some people enjoy it then it's all good. Maybe one day they'll stop by and look at some of my 'proper' work.