The Road to Nowhere is rough but relatively short, and it leads to an expansive, rocky field. If you look up this quiet dirt path, located in Nunavut, on Google Maps, you can get a sense of this view: someone has marked “End of Road to Nowhere” with a photograph of the somewhat scenic place.
This road is one of the many places on our planet that convey feelings of desolation, hopelessness, and solitude — in fact, see Ontario’s Solitude Island, a green land mass just over 300 feet long. For three years, the photographer Damien Rudd has gathered examples of such geographies, from roads to mountains to lakes, and posted screenshots of their view on Google Maps to his wildly popular Instagram account, @sadtopographies. The allure of these images of isolated physical features, darkly humorous for their mystifying nomenclature, is undeniable, and has since led to their recent publication in book form.
Rudd has teamed up with Jean Boîte Editions to produce Triste Tropique, Topographies of Sadness, which compiles 89 sad-named places. The 192-page tome is part of the French publisher’s series, “Follow Me,” a collection of thematic books for which artists have curated images from the digital sphere. Other titles include Jon Rafman’s celebrated The Nine Eyes of Google Street View; DIS Magazine’s #artselfie; and João Rocha’s Kim Jong Il Looking at Things.
Triste Tropique, which borrows its name from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s melancholic memoir and travelogue, differs from its social media version in a few ways. It’s more organized, laid out chronologically — from Abandoned road in Hartwick, New York, to Worthless Road in Laytonville, California — even comes with a “sad index” of each location. It also features brief texts to accompany each location by writer Cécile Coulon. Some of these vividly imagine what these places are like (Despair Island: “Black sand beach, drooping coconut palms and silent crabs, even the wind avoids passing here.”); but others read like uninspired koans from a fortune cookie (All Alone: “Obviously, whoever follows this path won’t encounter anyone, but could very well find themselves.”).
Rudd, thankfully, goes beyond these mini myths in his other book inspired by @sadtopographies, A Disenchanted Travellers’ Guide, that looks into the origins of these place names. The location that inspired his entire project epitomizes the fascinating histories behind many of these names. Rudd’s journey to seek out the world’s glummest-sounding spaces began when he was tracing the expedition route of two 19th-century European explorers, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, who were attempting to cross the Australian continent and survey indigenous land. One of their destinations was Mount Hopeless, so named by an earlier explorer, Edward Eyre, who recalled ascending it and seeing a “cheerless and hopeless … prospect before us.” His words essentially erased the mountain’s other name, Maiurru Mitha Vambata, as known in an Aboriginal language; his journeys also opened up much of South Australia for settlement.
Knowing the history of the mountain’s name points to biases coded into Google Maps, which plots it as “Mount Hopeless,” and nothing else. Rudd, who searched for sad topographies by inputting sad words into Google’s search engine, inherently accepts these biases. His collection is also partial for another reason. Rather than a comprehensive survey of melancholic spots around the world, Triste Tropique focuses almost entirely on sites in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Of course, Rudd is searching in English, and input limits output; still, there are other English-language names from many other countries that Google can find, from Solitude Island in Russia to Lonely Beach in Thailand.
Yes — I get that this is just a humorous Instagram project, but I’d like to invite Rudd to represent more countries in the future, and perhaps, sometime down this road of miserable roads, also consider introducing us to depressing names in more languages.