Here's What It's Like To Visit An Actual Paper Town
Agloe, New York, the famous town that John Green's Paper Towns is based on, was a fictional place until someone made it real.
Agloe, New York, is where part of John Green's fictional book turned movie Paper Towns is set. But Agloe is also a real place in upstate New York — a real-life paper town. Margo Roth Spiegelman, one of Paper Towns' main characters, runs away to Agloe right before her high school graduation in an attempt to find herself. She glorifies the small, secluded location as an escape from her own suburban Florida hometown. To Margo, Agloe is a chance to explore the unknown.
But there's a catch: Agloe isn't a real town. Well, it wasn't real, then it became real, and today it technically no longer exists. Agloe's complicated plane of existence is directly related to the the title of Green's novel: Agloe is a true paper town. As Green explains, "paper towns" originated back in the days before we relied on GPS and Google Maps. Back when paper road maps were still in high demand, competing cartographers would cut corners by copying each other's maps.
As a way to try and spot the forging mapmakers, some would write fake town names into their maps, usually in more desolate areas that weren't as recognizable. If the name of that paper town showed up on another map, they'd know for sure it was plagiarized. Decades ago, mapmakers could have never anticipated the technology we have today, and creating a town didn't have near the ramifications it might now. They were, ironically, creating lies to catch the forging mapmakers.
Agloe used to be just another fake town name in Delaware County, New York, a few miles north of Roscoe (estimated population 541) on Route 206. But somewhere along the way, it became real. The story goes that the founder and the assistant of the mapmaking company General Drafting Company, Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers, combined their initials to create the name Agloe in the 1930s.
When Rand McNally, a competing map company, included Agloe on one of their maps a few years later, the General Drafting Company tried to sue them for copyright infringement. But then Agloe the paper town unexpectedly became Agloe the real town. In the 1950s, the Agloe General Store popped up in the same exact place Agloe was located on both company's maps and solidified the town's existence. The owners of the General Store had seen the town name on a map, so when they decided to open up the store, they used it.
While Agloe still shows up on Google Maps, the 2014 United States Geological Survey officially confirmed to the Geographic Names Information System that the paper town is not a real place after all.
Last week, I visited this place that doesn't actually exist. Agloe might have been just a forgotten paper town before, but John Green and Margo Spiegelman literally put it back on the map. I wanted to see where the fictional and real-life Agloes diverged.
The drive upstate is all too familiar to me; growing up in Connecticut and going to college in Syracuse, New York, means I often drove over the Tappan Zee Bridge onto Interstate 86 and headed west onto Route 17.
October is the most picturesque time of year to be in upstate New York. There are just a few weeks a year in between seasons when the summer heat diminishes and there isn't a snowflake on the ground, when the trees change color to yellow and burnt orange scattered through mountains of green. It is, in my very biased opinion, the perfect place to spend a fall day — and possibly find yourself.
After veering off Exit 94 for Roscoe and heading a few miles north, there it was: Nestled below the Catskill Mountains on a windy two-lane road, there’s a tall green sign with white writing that reads, “Welcome to Agloe! Home of the Agloe General Store. Come back soon!” Under the text is a minimalist illustration of a general store — maybe of what the actual Agloe General Store looked like — but aside from the sign, there’s no documentation or confirmation anything was there before.
When you pull over to observe to the town sign for Agloe, which isn’t easy because of the narrow roads, it’s exactly what you’d expect a paper town to look like: nothing, space stretching on each side like a blank sheet of paper. It’s so subtle that if you blink, you could miss it, or mistake it for the same stretch of highway as the rest of your drive. It's located on a main road, but people drive through it every day without even realizing. Why would they? How could they?
Agloe is just an old sign, some land, an incredible view of the mountains, and a long winding road leading back toward the highway and north toward other small towns. Across the street from the sign is a gas station where trucks can pump their own gas; there isn't even an attendant.
Even though there’s not much to Agloe, what is there is still breathtaking. A fake town that doesn't really exist couldn't have looked more beautiful. Multicolored leaves covered the mountains and painted the sky all shades of yellow, orange, and red.
A short distance below the sign is a small creek surrounded by tall flowers among the trees. I couldn't find a name for it on the map. Agloe is full of silence; beautiful, serene silence that provides the kind of peace and calm that people living in big cities seldom find. The town might not be real, but the natural self-reflection that happens as a result of Agloe’s silence sure as hell is.
I couldn’t help but fall in love with the tiny space that is Agloe, not just because of its aesthetic beauty and the magic in its mystery, but also because it's evidence that we all have the power to make something real if we want to. It's not a bad place to imagine finding yourself, even if only for a brief moment before you continue your journey down the main highway; even if it's a place that doesn't technically exist.
In the film and book, Paper Towns deals with how high school–aged characters grapple with determining what’s real and what’s not — from the allure of Margo Roth Spiegelman to the town of Agloe itself, the characters are never sure how to define reality. These are universal struggles for people at any age; maybe you're over your first high school love, but you never stop questioning what made it real. You never stop questioning if you've become your full, adult self yet.
More than anything, Agloe is a lesson in self-manifestation and what happens when human beings take fate into their own hands. This paper town wasn’t supposed to actually exist and was intended to be just that, a town that only existed on paper. But then one person put up a sign, and what was real only on paper is suddenly real in life. Whether you consider them to be happy accidents or calculated shifts in reality, we're capable of great things. It makes you think about existence and how we decide what gets to exist at all; if you want to see something in the world, you can create it. You should create it.
I’m not the first person take the journey up to where the Agloe General Store used to be. Others have voyaged to the Agloe town sign — according to a quick Instagram search, at least. Fans of the book have make the pilgrimage to this upstate New York non-town, posted their photos with the Agloe geotag, and included captions like “Road tripping through fake towns” and “Agloe, NY. Population: 5 (until 11:21 AM, September 26, 2015).” Some even use quotes from the book to caption their photos, like the famous “The town was paper but the memories were not.”
Agloe is an important reminder that we get to decide what's important, what exists, and what takes up space in our world. There's so much power in that, and it was a power I felt on that October afternoon. By standing around, asking someone to take my picture in front of the general store sign, observing my surroundings, and stopping to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a tree trunk across the street from this paper town landmark, I helped make it real. I contributed to making it a reality.
Paper Towns is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.