The oldest surviving map of the world—the Babylonian Imago Mundi—circumscribes a landmass between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. The world it describes is only as long as the Euphrates River. At its center lies the city of Babylon.
To the mapmaker, chiseling in the 6th century before the Common Era, this was the world. The areas beyond Mesopotamia are dismissed, even as they are acknowledged, vaguely, with triangles beyond the known world’s oceanic boundaries.
To the modern eye, it seems like a child’s view of cartography. The world, according to such a limited map, is where I live. It comprises only the places I’ve seen, and perhaps a few others I’ve been told about. It would be like someone in Memphis vaguely outlining the primary urban centers between the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Michigan, drawing a circle around them, and calling that “the world.” What use is that?
And yet. I feel fond of that chiseled Babylonian map. I look at it again, and then again. This primitive attempt to explain “home”—the cultural and mythological center of the world—within the context of the mapmaker’s own limited human knowledge. Somewhere out there, beyond those intimidating seas, were other worlds. Someone had told him that. And what did he imagine of them? I would like to know. I would like to ask this mapmaker a thousand questions. He’s made such a lovable map. I wonder whether he was thanked for it, in his own time.
Lovers of maps. Yes, we quietly exist in this technological era. The sort of peculiar person who would own a magnifying glass without irony. A connoisseur of compass roses. You don’t even need to say now that you like to study “old” maps. What’s an old map, when life is so paperless? All maps are old maps.
But I would think it’s the rare map-lover whose taste for maps is truly indiscriminate. Like that Babylonian cartographer, we each tend to treasure the places we know—or the places we knew once, or maybe hope to know one day. Often we love the places we wish we could have known. If only.
Thousands of map archives have been compiled over the centuries, in libraries and museums. Increasingly, they’ve become digitized—which is a bittersweet delight for those of us torn between convenience and romance. Recently, I spent a few hours looking through a digital archive of Utah road maps throughout the 20th century. It was astonishing to observe the fits and lulls in the development of some of the least known areas of the country.
A road map is a fascinating thing. We think of them as a 20th century invention, but Europe was spanned by a dense network of roads as far back as Roman times, and they too were mapped. Many of those roads still exist, as the foundation for modern highways. But when we say “road maps,” we tend to mean those of the last century.
Modern road maps are altogether different from earlier maps. They presuppose a certain speed of movement—a speed that increased rapidly as the roads and cars improved. By scale alone, usually encompassing the borders of an entire state, a road map anticipates that you will be covering serious ground. And they have to be updated continually—yearly, at least—to avoid mishap and confusion amid the speed of development.
The first road map archived on the state of Utah site dates to 1910, when there were fewer than 150,000 automobiles in the entire nation. Utah’s official road map that year didn’t differentiate between paved and unpaved roads. The delineation would have been pointless. Outside the downtown streets of Salt Lake City, the entire concept of road-paving was pure futurism. Rail lines still traversed and connected the state with greater fluency than the patchwork of state and county roads. Many “roads” of the time were no more than rutted two-tracks and horse trails. To make the bumpy trip from the D&RGW rail station at Thompson, Utah down to one’s home in Monticello…just imagine. It would have required a patience and fortitude far surpassing modern abilities.
And, like all old maps, that 1910 map contains a thousand questions for further research. Blanding, Utah, for one, appears on that 1910 map as Grayson. Its name didn’t change for another four years. More questions–why did the roadbed alter at the junction of Thompson and the Moab road? Is there any remnant of all the unincorporated towns that “fell off” the map as time went on?
Tracing the road maps of Utah throughout the next few decades, you witness the increasingly heavy footprint of miners and farmers, the imprint of a flow of goods across the highways. By the mid-1930s, an unimproved trail appeared, connecting tiny Hanksville to the considerably tinier Hite. The future highway 95 extended tentatively from Blanding toward Natural Bridge. The two wouldn’t connect, thanks to the Hite Ferry, for another decade.
In 1940, the state included a cheerful pictorial map on the back of its official brochure, an acknowledgment that these maps were increasingly designed for tourist traffic. Then, beginning with the Eisenhower years, an explosion of investment. New roads. New paving. The toll ferry at Hite became a bridge. Glen Canyon Dam, of course, forever altered the mid-bottom of all the ensuing maps. Instructions to “carry water” along certain highway routes, including highway 24 from Hanksville to Green River, disappeared with time. Forty miles wasn’t what it used to be. Suddenly, the suggestion—and eventually, the completion of Interstate highways. Each change made the ground easier to cover. The landscape blurs at such speeds.
Distance itself isn’t what it used to be.
From the modern perspective, it can feel as though there is no more of this world left to discover. It’s all been charted and plotted into tedium. All the relevant scenery is dutifully marked for…well, we still call it “exploration,” though it isn’t. All the trails are signposted. All the mysteries, solved. Maps don’t mumble and meander off the edges anymore, with unknown lands to be described some other day. To find that kind of mystery, you would have to travel against time.
The older the map you’re studying, the more it is a record of the limitations of human knowledge. On his 1611 map of Virginia, for example, John Smith used small crosses along the river banks to show the extent of his own explorations. Beyond those crosses, his map—which was the best map of the territory at the time—was conjecture, its terrain based on the hearsay of his native sources.
In that cartographic era—the centuries of European discovery—the hastily scrawled journals of voyagers were fleshed out by local stories, by legend and the imagination of the mapmaker. That’s why so many of them were comically wrong.
Long before the entire continent of America had been surveyed, European mapmakers relied on theory and imagination to make sense of all the reports sent home from shipboard observations. Explorations of the new world’s Atlantic side had little to inform the explorations from the Pacific side. And tense relations between the colonizing countries meant little knowledge was shared. So the mapmakers would rationalize the vast space in between the known and unknown with imagined water paths and inland seas.
The future Great Salt Lake was postulated, and described by native sources, for at least a century before it was surveyed by Europeans. So, on such vague information, it was called by different names, moved north and moved south, given numerous non-existent outlets, and greatly enlarged or shrunk, from map to map. Sometimes it wasn’t included at all, even after it had appeared elsewhere.
In other maps, the eastern half of Oregon sat below imagined waters. Some cartographers lengthened the St Lawrence River until it spanned the continent to reach the Gulf of California. California itself was frequently depicted throughout the 1600s as a long skinny island in the Pacific.
The best inland maps were produced by the French, who considered themselves the rightful owners of that vast wilderness long before they had ever surveyed it. Their maps often relied on the accounts of Jesuit missionaries, who had traveled farther along the inland rivers than anyone else. One of those missionaries, Father Francesco Guiseppe Bressani, drew a remarkably complex and generally accurate map in 1657 of all the American lands known to himself and his fellow Jesuits. He managed this feat despite having lost most of his fingers—the result of torture he received as a captive of the Iroquois. Maps, in his day, were the product of memory, and his memories were worth the pain and awkwardness of their transcription.
Those old maps still hold their memories, for better and for worse. They contain the fables and the strange ideas of their time, long after they’ve been abandoned. Proposals that never became projects; grids that were never laid on the ground. Short-lived notions and wild hares. For example: a few maps, drawn between 1784 and 1790, show a forgotten 14th State in our young disorganized country. The state of Franklin. Territories were still malleable and boundaries were vague in those days. Even our form of national government—at that point, a loose confederation—was yet to be finalized. So why not a state of Franklin? Formed out of western lands that had been ceded by North Carolina, the small mountainous region declared itself an independent state in 1784 and elected itself one Governor. But his term was the full life of the autonomous state of Franklin. Failing to win the required national support, the state was dissolved and re-absorbed into North Carolina in 1789.
But then, in 1796, North Carolina (apparently not very fond of those mountainous regions) ceded their western lands again. The old state of Franklin was absorbed into the brand-new state of Tennessee. And that new state elected its own first governor, a John Sevier, who curiously had also been the one elected Governor of Franklin. It tells you something of his influence. Just think of the world John Sevier lived in. A country in which boundaries constantly flexed and re-drew themselves; and yet somehow he remained at the crest of the time and that particular place. The state is long-since forgotten. But still, on a handful of maps, the boundaries of Franklin ring with as much authority as do Delaware’s or Pennsylvania’s. Those maps are only a curiosity now. Only a memory, preserved beyond usefulness.
Maps are forgotten by the larger public when they cease to describe reality. A map is born for use, and it dies when it loses its worth as a functional object. The question we are most likely to ask of a map, after all, is how do I get from this point to that point? And if the map answers poorly, we may be misled into danger. We may end up…well, in Texas perhaps instead of Louisiana, like the unfortunate French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. He had only himself to blame for his mishaps—his own poor cartography skills on his previous journey down the Mississippi. Trusting his own map from the subsequent trip, La Salle wandered far too West along the gulf coast to settle the future New Orleans, which was his intent. He died in 1687 during a mutiny of his own men near now-Navasota, Texas. They had grown tired of searching for the mouth of this supposed great river, which had been, in fact, far in their rear-view. You have to feel sorry for poor La Salle. He must have watched the unfamiliar coastline with increasing dread each day, murmuring again and again, “I could have sworn that river was somewhere around here…”
But some of us do enjoy maps even after they’ve outlived their original usefulness. We wouldn’t use them to reach Sarasota, but we love them all the same. We may even enjoy maps that were never particularly useful in the first place. For their beauty, if nothing else. A pre-computerized map was an idiosyncratic creature, with individual (if distinct and easy-to-read) handwritten place names. Hand-drawn mountains and rivers. Those mapmakers, hewing precisely as humanly possible to the known and surveyed characteristics of a place, betrayed themselves with an individualistic charm. Their maps were, after all, humanly possible. And they tell a human story—of individual human-known places as they were altered through the generations.
To trace a particular place on the earth through its lineage of maps is to experience time. Our own ancestors’ journeys over the landscape. Our plans and desires. Maps are a record of the human touch on the earth. We drew maps in order to recount our explorations, so they could be repeated and expanded. We drew maps to propose a field of battle, or a system of levies, or the grid that would maybe, or maybe not, become a city. Humans did not, by and large, want to draw maps of places where they didn’t intend to do something. And it might be unfashionable to respect that instinct in this particular era, but you have to at least acknowledge it as something innate to us. Humans know how memory can transcend death, and so we want to be a part of the cultural memory. To leave your imprint on the maps is to leave a mark in time.
Myself, I love maps because I love the peculiarities of human history. I’ll confess to a lack of interest in terrain for its own sake. A hill, yes, is a lovely thing. I can admire it. But I’ll take a second look once I see the ruins of some half-demolished home at its foot. Or the rusted remains of a cowboy camp. In the span of human memory, that hill is only a hill. On the scale of geologic time, I know it might have been a glacier. And some people have that Michener-esque imagination. But it’s beyond me.
The progression along that hill, however, of a footpath that becomes a wagon trail, which becomes a road, which becomes a habitable settlement….that is a movement across time that grabs my imagination. When a dusty street sprouts a row of buildings–among them an inn, which, after two hundred more years of history, is still remembered as the inn where some particular outlaw was shot by a dastardly cattle rustler…Now you’re traveling the terrain of human memory. The Mafia erecting itself a glittering oasis in the desert. Mulholland pouring the Owens Valley water into Los Angeles swimming pools. Rail lines stitching feverishly across the Plains. Telegraph lines, Greyhound bus lines, and the rise and fall of Midwestern Air fields. That kind of human terrain begets maps and more maps. It’s a landscape that creates and re-creates itself in endless cycles. The birth and death of bridges, of highways and factories, of entire cities. To look back at the map of human habitation and exploration, even from a distance of a single generation, is to draw excitement out of ashes. It rekindles the dreams of the dead.
To look at an old map is, at its heart, an act of desire. A desire to have been born with time and, like time, to keep ticking as lesser and greater civilizations are built, or destroyed. The map-lover’s desire can’t be fulfilled. It only frustrates. The scale is never as detailed as you would like. Your questions aren’t answered. Streets, and towns, and rail lines, disappear. Memories have been lost by generations of forgetfulness.
If you could, you would prefer to take up a long-lost moment in your hand. You would bring it to your mouth for a taste. You would walk down those streets, in that time, and hear how they sounded. You would cheer on the great bridges—the Brooklyn, the Golden Gate—as they were built. Watch as Kansas City’s waterfront was cut out of the rocky palisades. You would have stood with the crowd at Promontory Summit in 1869. But you will never have that chance.
Your foot is stubborn. It has been planted on the ground in this place and this time. Around you, everything spins. Streets. Buildings. Nations. They never settle. You look at the old maps because you’d like, just once, to lift your foot and step into the whirlwind with them. To travel the trails that will be roads, and take ferries across the harbors that will be bridged. You wish you could spin through time and fall to the earth somewhere, like Dorothy fell from the tornado, beyond the oceans surrounding your own Babylon.
But all you have are these tools. This magnifying glass. This particular archive to explore. You have the maps that have survived—ink set to paper—and just a little time. That’s all.
Tonya Audyn Stiles is Publisher and Managing Editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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