A Matter of Scale

She shook her head. ‘I’ve only just come out from England.’

‘From England? Oh my word.’ He spoke in the slow manner of the outback. ‘What’s it like in England? Do you get enough to eat?’

She said her piece again. ‘My Dad came from England,’ he said. ‘From a place called Wolverhampton. Is that near where you live?’

‘About two hundred miles,’ she replied.

‘Oh, quite close. You’ll know the family then.’

                – Excerpt from A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute


It’s over-stereotyped, but this exchange set shortly after World War II made me chuckle. It’s familiar. About a dozen years ago relatives from Denmark visited my parents’ house before continuing on to a vacation in the American west. After a meal, they started sketching plans in an atlas. Their first day’s route bounced gleefully through several states and half a dozen national parks. Dad stopped them.

“You won’t be able to cover all that in one day.”


“See this road between the first park and the next one? That alone will take about eight hours.” Their jaws fell slightly open. “It’s through the desert. If you see a gas station, stop for fuel, because you may not see another for four hours. Carry several gallons of water in the car. It’s hot and you don’t know when you’ll be able to get water. You’ll need hours to drive across each of these parks and several days to explore – you can’t just get out of the car, walk around, and leave.”

That was my first introduction to geographical mindsets. If you live in a large former colony like Canada, Australia, or the United States you may gauge scale, distance, and proximity very differently than someone from a densely populated, village-riddled area of Great Britain or Europe. It’s tough to grasp the enormous quantity of empty wilderness within our nations without seeing it. My relatives were smart, well-educated people – it’s just a big mental adjustment jumping from a city park in Copenhagen to a National Park in the U.S. The entire nation of Denmark is about 20% smaller than our largest national park.

Every town in Austria is accessible by public transportation each day. I enjoyed being able to walk to the grocery store and travel anywhere without a car from Vienna. However, Austrians occasional scolded me (as a de-facto representative of the U.S.) for the lack of similar systems in our country. Periodically I still picture dropping them out in west Texas with nothing but scrub and cattle for 400 miles, and seeing if their tune changes. Not that I’m vindictive…


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