Friday, December 9, 2016

Finding our way

1907 Postal Map, showing detail of Kerr County
How many maps do you carry around in your mind?
Take, for instance, the layout of your favorite grocery store.  Almost everyone can easily find the eggs, milk, produce and meats, because most stores follow a convention on those things.  But consider the more obscure items you regularly buy.  Without effort you can recall where they are stocked in the store, on which shelf, and roughly how far down the aisle.
Your favorite brand of coffee -- you know where they keep it.  Likewise, the pasta you like, or the detergent you prefer.  You can almost draw a map to each item in the store.
This line of thought occurred to me recently as I was shopping in Gibson's.  Gibson's has a wide variety of items, and I have a fairly good idea where everything is kept, although the big reorganization of their shelves awhile back did keep me confused for several months.
That reorganization allowed more interaction with the staff there, which made me realize I rarely know the name of the thing I need from Gibson's.  When something around the house needs repair, I head to Gibson's.  Once there, I know what the item looks like, I know what it does, and I know how to install it.  But asking someone for help finding it poses problems, since I have no idea what it's called.
Describing its purpose sometimes helps the Gibson's crew know what I need; describing its color or size helps, too.
I've found just taking a photo of the part I need with the camera on my phone helps, too.  When asked what I'm looking for, I show the photo, never having to learn the item's name.  For all I know, it could be called an metric reciprocating flange, with patented oscillation dampeners.
I have a complete enough map of Gibson's that I can get close to the item, usually, before having to ask for help.
In the larger world, we carry other maps.  We know how to get from our house to the grocery store.  We know how to find an address on most streets across town.  We know which highway to take to get to Medina.  We can find that place on the Guadalupe where the dog jumped out of the canoe.
Because of my interest in local history, I wondered what maps the earliest settlers carried around in their heads.
They didn't have to remember the layouts of stores, since there were few, and those few had clerks who would fill your order for you.  Most of those early stores were about the size of a single-car garage.
Nor did the early settlers have to remember the names of streets or highways, as these were scarce, too.
They might know the way from San Antonio to here, or which rough trail would take you to Junction City.  They might know the best route to a bear cave (which was a popular meat among early settlers), or to a bee hive.
Consider those who were here even before the settlers -- what type of map did they carry?
Since there were no permanent villages here in prehistoric times, but campsites used repeatedly by different peoples, perhaps those wandering hunter-gatherers had maps of a broader area.  I've read descriptions of travel among the local Native American tribes, where great distances were covered without a map, but by using landmarks along the way.  A trip of several hundred miles could be described quite efficiently by naming the widely-spaced landmarks on the route.
History is a collection of stories -- maps, in a way -- that describe such widely-spaced events.  Some stories are precise and accurate; others can only be described with a photo taken with the camera on your phone.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who remembers the old Daniel Boone quote: "I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks." This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times December 3, 2016.

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