My husband can testify I am a horrible road trip wing woman. Put a contemporary map in my hand, and I’ll turn it topsy-turvy before I can decipher anything of travel assistance. The road names, byways, mile markers, and intersections all blend into a flurry of ‘huh?’ God forbid he ask me where the nearest gas station or fast-food joint might be. My traditional response: “Get off the interstate and we’ll look around.” We had a tent revival halleluiah when we got our first GPS system. But this isn’t to say I don’t like maps. Quite the contrary. I’m obsessed with them. They tickle my brain to think hard—harder.
I love that you can take a road map, strip it of boundaries, concrete highways, interstates, and exit numbers; show me the topography of the land, the rivers and streams, mountain ranges and valleys, and suddenly, the world rises up off the page in vivid sensations: rocky, wet, and smelling of basin swamps and mountain air. It unspools —north, south, east, west. Each compass needle pointing to a story.
I’m particularly drawn to old maps. Visual atlases of how things were and are no more. The major road once connecting A to B is now gone. The major river once separating communities dried up fifty years back. Hilltops are laid low by our human wear and tear. Chunks of the earth are apportioned into territories/countries/states then divided further. Wars shred the landscape, bearing something new—not worse or better necessarily. Just changed.
And all the secret understanding is tucked into the mapmaker’s key (also called the ‘mapmaker’s legend’) at the bottom of the page, outside the plotted world; so if the journeyman is confused by the exact distance, surface, or body of water out of sight, the key will provide meaning. It’s a skill and an art: mapmaking. [Read more…]