What is it about maps?

I mean, beyond the functional usefulness. 

Just the other day I was listening to Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Through most of the book he decries the lack of accurate maps of the Appalachian Trail, but then he finds the 15 foot model of the trail at the AT Conference office in Harper’s Ferry. He suddenly realizes that if he had seen this before starting out, he might never have done so. I guess it was lucky for him, and those of us who enjoyed the book, that he didn’t find an accurate map beforehand. 

The very next day one of the volunteers in our library told me she was looking for a map of the Danube River from Budapest to Istanbul because they were going on a trip in a few months. All the maps she had seen barely showed that part at all. I found a map for her through Creative Commons on Wikipedia and she was ecstatic. “I just need to be able to picture it, to know how the river moves across the land,” she said. 

I myself have maps of practically everywhere I’ve ever taken a trip. I love being able to look at a map and see where I am in context to the rest of the land and buildings. I guess I like the independence it gives me and the options to go where I want. 

Think of all the people who were compelled to not only explore America, but to map it. Why? Maps fulfill a fundamental need in humans to place ourselves in relation to food… lodging… the comforts of home… the vastness of the universe. To confer order on the unknown. If we can’t know why we’re here, we can at least know where. In order to enjoy our experience we have to know where we are in relation to people, places and things. It is unnerving to be set adrift. When the landmarks change, either because we have moved or our terrain has been rearranged somehow, we need to get our bearings. We cling to what is familiar.

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