It's a small world, after all - Joel Hall

Anyone who knows me very well knows, one of my guilty pleasures is maps. I love maps and have loved them since I was a child.

As a kid, I would pour through world maps, street guides, subway maps, nautical coordinates, globes, or anything else that broke the world down to scale.

My favorite maps were the ones that included terrain. I could run my finger over the Himalayas and know that they were larger than the Alleghenies. One of the maps I owned even had a gritty, sandy surface in places like the Gobi Desert, the Sahara, and the Sierra Nevada.

I had copies of the Mercator world map, which gives an unrealistic size bias to the Northern Hemisphere and copies of area-proportional maps, which showed that South Africa is really seven times the size of Texas and that the continent of Africa can accommodate three North Americas.

One of the more interesting maps I owned was a map of the Austrian U-Bahn, the subway system of Vienna. The map included routes of the trains and street trolleys that ran over it.

The system was so perfect. I was told by a teacher, who gave me the map, that the U-Bahn, with only six subway lines, could get people anywhere they wanted to go within the Vienna city limits in under 30 minutes.

I guess the reason I loved maps so much is because I have always had dreams of traveling to foreign places. The desire to travel comes from the fact that I have spent most of my life walking.

For the majority of my childhood, my parents never owned a car, and even when I was in middle school and we did have a car, we only had one car -- which my father took to work. It wasn't until after college that I owned my own car, so I have spent many hours walking for insane distances, waiting for inconsistent buses, and scowling at people who drive cars.

When I got to college and finally had the resources and means with which to travel, I got a little travel happy, taking jobs and internships wherever my passport would allow. Now it's been about six years since my first international flight and I have seen my fair share of the world.

Traveling anywhere outside of your neighborhood is enriching in many ways, but world travel is life changing. There are many positives, such as the ability to order food in several languages, a basic understanding that the world is bigger than America, and an understanding (and even tolerance) of cultures other than your own.

I guess the only negative is that it makes you an extremely nostalgic person. My home, car, desk, desktop, key chain, and even my MP3 player all bear keepsakes, given to me by precious people, who made the biggest difference in my life for small increments of time.

At times, when I am staring into the blankness of my computer screen, I imagine being able to travel and see those people again. Sometimes when I come home from work, I sift through my world atlas and retrace the steps I have taken.

That is why I was so intrigued when I recently discovered Google Earth. I had heard about the software several months ago, when it became available to the general public.

It took me a couple of months to pick up on it because I got busy with the job I currently have. However, about two weeks ago, I downloaded the software and I've been hooked ever since.

Google Earth does what no other map or mapping system has ever done, in that it really breaks the world down to scale. With a few simple mouse moves, you can zero in on any place in the world.

The technology is incomplete, in that the pictures are dated and there are many geographical areas that have not been clearly mapped. In many of the metropolitan areas, however, the detail is such that you can make out individual cars and even large trees.

The potential for the technology is great. I'll be waiting for the day that I will be able to see one of my friends waving to me from another country, or look at my father's car in the driveway to make sure that he made it home safely.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com, or, by phone, at (770) 478-5753, ext. 281.