18 January 2010


Do you love maps? I do. I can spend enormous, silly amounts of time staring at them. More time than I waste checking out Facebook :-D Maps hold anticipation, imagination, stories, dreams.

Getting there from here on contemporary road trips is not unlike some genealogical problems. You have to calculate a distant goal with probably some allotted time to complete your assignment (I’m stretching hard here, guys, to make a connection: A to B is not always a straight line).

No GPS system for this navigator; it takes away all the fun of savouring the colourful, hypnotic maps and tangled road lines and making your own route choices. Sitting at breakfast in the small-town café where all the pickup trucks are parked, debating today’s route, is an exhilarating measure of freedom—whether you are a sole driver or have the car packed with kids and assorted relationships. Taking freeways is far too boring. All those villages and towns and cities and special places to see. What will they really look like in 3-D and real time? What kind of people live there? Will I meet some? Do they speak like me or have “accents”? Can we find something in common to talk about? Or will I feel foreign?

A map of North America gives me a retrospective of the 49 American states I’ve seen, the 10 Canadian provinces (and still working on Mexico), a never-ending continent to explore. There! ... once a breakfast in Sweetwater TX, where patrons of the local diner were winding up for the Rattlesnake Festival; lunch on a deck over Chesapeake Bay MD, new to local history; dinner at the Plains Hotel in Cheyenne WY, new cowboy boots satisfactorily in place. ... Er ... not all on the same day, to be sure.

See: Here’s where the car broke down in Arkansas, an unforeseen stay in Bill Clinton’s hometown; there’s where my friend lives on Poor Farm Road in Vermont on Lake Champlain; the unsuspected and exciting gorge of the Saskatchewan River my cousin showed me; that atrocious hardtop from Valladolid to Mérida in the Yucatan, in pursuit of the alluring Gourmet Magazine hotel. How to reach that unique spot on the Bay of Fundy, or Canyon de Chelly, or Lime Rock racetrack in Connecticut which was always around the corner but never quite there like Brigadoon. An endless continent to explore! Snakes Bight NL, Savannah GA, Sturgis SD, I want them all.

Then I can trace all those wine-loving Bourgogne towns from Dijon to Lyon (the caves of Beaune and Mâcon highly recommended); the starkly forested highway from Finland to St Petersburg along which the rurals augment their meagre incomes selling smoked fish, firewood, mushrooms; the biblical sites on one of the Red Sea to Dead Sea routes; the foothills in Rajhastan where scampering monkeys routinely interrupt traffic, slight as it may be.

Of course, historical maps are best of all when ancestors are the great interest. Pre-First World War Eastern Europe. Eighteenth century Scotland. See how the old roads follow the rivers and valleys ... if there are roads. What are the significant geographic features that affected the inhabitants? Depending on what you know about your ancestor and the availability of map scale, are the villages or even farms shown? Are actual buildings of the period shown? Does it give you an inkling of where your ancestor slotted into local surroundings or status or ownership? How close can you get to or guess where country children rambled to play their secret games? Which town was the magnet for farm people heading to marketplace or church? Where was industry developing to pull young people away from the farm?

Whoa ... I began this post intending to convey my excitement about a map book of Toronto. Oh, how I DIGRESS when an ATLAS presents itself! Brenda resumes, after a disciplinary pause.


Antra said...

I love maps too! For the work I'm doing, I have two inter-war map collections of Latvia - one scanned onto CD, where the maps show every tiny little farmstead, and the other an atlas from 1940 that my paternal grandfather brought to Canada with him that isn't as detailed (but still fairly detailed). My dad gave it to me last week and I've been studying it intently ever since! I use them both because the CD edition doesn't have parish boundaries for some reason, so I use the book one to figure out those boundaries in relation to where places are.

Unknown said...

I am glad that others get lost in maps. As a retired professor of Ancient History, loosing oneself in old maps is acceptable. Studying the activities of the Vikings in Russia and at the same time in history, their economic trade development in the Americas, I find the Isle of Coll and surrounding islands to be quite interesting. My ancestor was a Viking by the name of "Coll". Coll with his flotilla of ships and men invested themselves into the territory of North West Scotland and stayed to become part of the population of Scotland. Later in the 1700's a preacher performed his church activities on the island of Coll. Interestingly enough, his last name was Coll.
Brenda, do you possess any information concerning the very early history of Coll? In your archives, do you have any records of the preacher, Mr. Coll?
Brenda, your blog is always interesting and a source of enlightenment.
May you always find time to study people and maps,
Glen McCall
Rogers, Arkansas (HillBillies from up in the tall Ozark mountains). On an excursion, in person or in map-time, spend some time in Eureka, Arkansas.