A well-marked map charts more than just roads.

When I haven’t been somewhere in a while, I always go to the Can first. No, not—never mind. Yes, that one too.

The Can is a 7.62mm ammunition can stuffed with maps. Some are velvety, tissuey, greasy, and gray with use. That’s how you identify the good ones. Other maps huddle in various spots—tank bag covers, car door compartments, riding jackets—but it’s the Can where the good stuff sleeps.

About an hour north, Jordan Road is a worthwhile exercise. Scenic, variegated, rippled, and humped, J-Road wanders north out of Granite Falls to run between ranches and hillsides, nuzzling the South Fork of the Stillaguamish. I ride Jordan for the same reason pianists run the scales.

My route to Jordan is plotted in dingy orange highlighter on a superannuated WSDOT map. We could replace it every year for free, but maps, like jean jackets, gain value as they age until, when well-nigh perfect, they more or less vaporize. This one charts years of good eats, scenic vistas, Pretty Girls, flashy bikes, oases to rest and think. It also records whipping storms, downed trees, icy roads, and scores of unintentionally homicidal drivers: HC SVNT DRACONES. Smudges on the map.

"A stack of well-marked maps is an invaluable asset."

When I disinterred my neatly folded map, it appeared as respectably complete as a middle-aged BMW jockey, dressed up snappy in world-proof gear. Unfolding it revealed heart rot, a punky hole that could fail all the way to the edge at one clumsy swipe. Cautious as a curator, I slipped it under the yellowing window on my tank bag, smiled nervously at Pretty Wife, and we bobbled off toward the far edge of Snohomish County.

Wobbling like a meth-addled three-patcher, I sawed my way through a half-dozen apexes per curve, unable to trust my body, my bike, or that fine, familiar road. Whatever broke inside me last summer wasn’t just my spine. Every move I planned drained away through that anxiety-fringed hole in my middle, Black Betty snorting and bucking as any mount will when she suspects her rider.

Halfway along, we hauled down at Jordan Cemetery. Smooth and fast on fine bikes, I’ve blown past its pullout a dozen times, but this ride demanded a break.

Pretty Wife pulled up, hopped off her Strumpet, and wordlessly took my hand. No bird chirped as we shuffled up the grass drive to an iron gate opening onto old markers of the ends of roads.

They may as well have been runestones. Each flat rock remembered some tough towhead: Engstrom, Jonson, Erickson, Knutson. There weren’t any Peterrsons; my people lie south in The Dalles. They weren’t soft-handed writers either. They farmed and drank and felled big timber, and plenty of their markers bear smaller numbers than mine would, were it carved in stone today.

When I crayoned the first lines onto my personal atlas, I never imagined it would bear me past the state lines of Oregon, but it’s a big, blowsy thing now, stitched together of mismatched colors and strange terrain, undifferentiated pages of nonsense and meaning loose-bound at their edges, illuminated by angels and monsters all racing outward from the center.

Where the hole is.

I never knew those squareheads quietly planted along my favorite road, but my debt to them is plain: not to cosset my map in the hermetic safety of the Can but to hold it close and wear it through, to etch plans and memories onto it until they’re overlaid and interlaced like full-cuff tattoos. To tape up that hole in the middle, smoothing those jagged lines back into smooth sweepers with warm, unshakeable, grease-nailed hands.

And then to ride the whole territory, all the way to its frazzled edge, until I meet them there.