Maps & their stories

I like maps – they tell stories.

Now, of course there are many stories through the centuries of imperialists and conquerors drawing their own borders, attempting to acquire lands through some perceived higher right. I don’t foresee us discussing these maps in this article.

Instead, there are a few scenes playing before my mind’s eye:

* St Louis street maps: As part of a survey project in the 1870s (Camille Dry & Richard Compton), maps were drawn of St Louis city streets, with buildings drawn in perspective and horse-drawn carriages in the streets. Years ago, my mom poured through books in an old archive to discover my grandparents’ home, the home of her childhood and of some of my and my siblings’ holiday memories.

* Simple explorations: My dad bequeathed to me a love of driving through the countryside, finding small towns and quiet farmlands. My husband and I, we always leave plenty of room for discovery, for that instantaneous “what’s down this small road?” approach. Ah, there is beauty everywhere. Sometimes it’s a seascape or a great blue heron hunting. And sometimes it’s an old town rediscovering a new life, a new industry.

* Self-researched Mustang: A couple years ago, a main project of mine was to compile a map of Mustang, Nepal (my husband’s tribal land). I’d located historical maps and a few trekking guides but nothing complete. So, utilizing our own travel experiences, the numerous historic texts I’d read, and satellite images, I put everything together. It was a powerful experience, to feel so immersed. My only disappointment was my unsuccessful search for a major local caravanning route in the satellite footage. I’d found many worn paths but kept getting lost in the mountains on this particular route into Tibet, traversed by my husband’s people – from Jhong, more direct than the well-known path along west of the Kali Gandaki gorge.

* Forbidden Mustang: The Kingdom of Mustang has been a part of Nepal since the 1700s. Ethnically, it is part of the lands of the Tibetan peoples – lands that have long exceeded the borders of “Tibet,” in its various incarnations. Through much of the last half of the 20th century, Mustang was closed to outsiders, in part because Tibetan Kham-pa guerilla fighters had chosen to place their bases in Mustang, from which to launch attacks on the Chinese rule of Tibet. In fact, the CIA supported the Kham-pas with finances and training.

Interesting to my husband and I, there is much written on the Kham-pas, but we have found nothing relating the perspectives of the Lo-bas (the people of Mustang). That said, with the limited resources of Mustang, we cannot imagine that the Kham-pas were welcomed by the Lo-bas.

* North of Beautiful: My friend, Justina Chen Headley, will release her newest teen novel in January, North of Beautiful. As with all of Tina’s novels, there is such a layering of characters, details and plots. And in this book, maps play a pivotal role – both in their historic and modern incarnations. You’re amazing, Tina!

* 1950s globe: In 9th grade geography class during our unit on Southeast Asia, I’d forgotten my notes at school and so prepared for my test using my parents’ 1950s globe. Imagine my surprise, when my best friend and I were quizzing each other pre-class. It’s amazing how much can change – whether significantly or superficially – in a few decades.

* Siberia & Sakha Republic: It was while working on my undergrad that I first felt the pull to Siberia, and in particular, to the Sakha Republic. I remember sitting in my dorm room – taking a “break” from studying – staring at my map. How different was my perspective after returning from a winter in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, working on my Master’s.

What do you see in maps? What stories do they hold for you, or maybe, do they not speak to you at all?


  1. Thank you, dear Brenda. I, too, love maps although I seem to be directionally dyslexic. I would love to see your photographs (and maps) of Mustang.

  2. How does google Earth treat Mustang?

    We've zoomed in on friends homes in Kathmandu, but I wonder about the resolution in Mustang.

    Keep blogging, and stay in touch.

  3. Thanks for inquiring, Bookman.

    We've been elated with the resolution of Google Earth in Mustang. For example, I was able to follow a major local-route caravanning trail through much of the region. Amazing.

    How did you like it?


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