The Atlas

By David Michael Newstead.


I bought it for $2.95 in 1996. Picked it up at a Rite-Aid. The Rand McNally Notebook World Atlas was a thin collection of maps and flags meant to insert into binders for easy reference before Google existed.

I kept it for 18 years, occasionally leafing through the book before closing it again. In all that time, the Atlas became tattered. The paper aged. And its portrait of the world became completely out-of-date. In the interlude, I grew up and changed as well.

Since 1996, a few new countries have come into existence, while national borders have shifted here and there. In Crimea. Hong Kong. Serbia. Montenegro. Macau. Kosovo. South Sudan. East Timor. And some flags were re-made along with their governments. In Iraq. Afghanistan. Rwanda. Libya. And Venezuela.

Today, there’s no such place as Zaire anymore. Zaire is long gone.

I bought the Atlas on a $5.00 budget when I was a kid. It was a Christmas gift for my father who died unexpectedly a few days later. I can’t say why I kept it for this long. Or why I thought it’d be a good present to begin with. But that Atlas was really one of a thousand details – the kind of loose end you wouldn’t think about until it’s staring you in the face. An artifact just leftover in the aftermath.

It was easy enough for me to keep and difficult to get rid of, even as I moved over the years. I guess the Atlas has a story behind it the way every object might have some larger significance. To someone, at least. For me, it’s the embodiment of a memory. It’s a snapshot of Christmas 1996 and the world as it once was – a gift from a long time ago.

After a lot of thought, I decided that that particular story should end this year. The Rand McNally Notebook World Atlas can’t follow me through life forever and I shouldn’t let it. But moving forward doesn’t have to mean forgetting. And I won’t.

In November, I built a campfire one night and I watched as the Atlas slowly disappeared. I was by myself. It was freezing outside and dark in every direction except for the pyre I had created. With a sense of stoic determination, I stayed out there in the cold, looking on until the flames died down to nothing. Then, the Atlas was  gone.