Saturday, January 10, 2015


Maps are one of my favorite things. Since retirement, I’ve made maps the central object to my travels. I call these adventures “voyages of the blue bus.” That’s the Ford Flex we bought to enjoy our travel years. With over 120,000 miles in the four years we’ve been retired, we have seen a lot of country. I keep track of our voyages on a road atlas where I mark each route with a blue line in recognition of the color of our vehicle. This atlas has two or more pages for most states, and it is a bit hard to visualize the breadth of the journeys when you have to keep turning the page.

So, a few months back, I bought a large map of the US with most of the highways on it. (It is missing some of the minor roads that are a favorite target of our trips, but I’ll be able to add those in.) I plan to hang it on the wall. It is quite large, about four feet tall by six feet wide. I haven’t found a mounting place yet, but there is some bare space in the garage that might be very appropriate.

I spend a lot of time looking at maps and planning the next journey. I like the off-the-beaten-path routes and picturesque destinations. The bus does well on the Interstate, but it is the less traveled back roads that I seek out for adventure. From the little town of Lincoln we discovered on a short cut from Missoula to Great Falls to the tiny hamlet of Alpine on the Idaho / Wyoming border, not in the plan, but definitely in our memories.

Maps are very important to the military. They have a lot of sayings regarding maps such as “the map isn't the territory” and “when the map and the territory don’t agree, trust the territory.” Yes, maps can be wrong. I read somewhere, long ago, back when maps were free at the local gas station, that each brand would purposely add a fictitious town to their charts. That way they could prove in court that some other company plagiarized their map.

Maps aren’t just about terra firma. In mathematics they are very important. We call any function a mapping and used terms like “one-to-one” and “onto” to classify these functional mappings. Perhaps it is a remnant of the original geometry that lies at the root of all mathematical thought that leads to such nomenclature. Mapping of data is an essential part of computer science and all software engineers have dozens of algorithms and data structures that they use to perform this mapping and data manipulation.

I like to sit down with a highway map and plan out my next journey. Recently I was attracted to US Highway 12. It takes an interesting route across Washington, Idaho, and Montana over Lolo pass. Part of the Montana / Idaho route was followed by Robert Pirsig. But the road goes on into the Dakotas, across Wisconsin and Illinois, and ends up in Detroit, Michigan. All along this old highway there appear to be wonders of scenery and little towns and famous cities. I think I'll take it.

I am eagerly awaiting the moment when I can add a blue line to my memory map along this storied route. And there are others. Planning any vacation often means getting out the map, even if you intend to fly on commercial air lines. It is still useful to map out the territory and consider the possible side-trips.

Whole books have been written about journies and “on the road” is a common theme for literature. There are differences, however, between the map and the journey. The map assist in the plan of the journey and can be useful along the way. The map can help one anticipate the events and plan the itinerary and stopping points. But the actual journey can deviate from the map. It is something different.

This dual characteristic between the map and the journey is just what those military axioms were getting at. The map isn’t the territory. When an activity has this dual character, it can happen that the lived-through character of the experience so dominates its planned-through character that you hardly notice the extrinsic goal that your activity facilitates. This is especially true of many of my journeys were the trip is the goal, not the destination. That reverses the purpose in a way that is quite pleasurable. Suddenly agendas and timetables take a back seat to the new spot in the road you’ve just discovered.

There are so many of those experiences in my journeys over the last four years. Your attention becomes riveted on the intrinsic goal — the mapping itself. The previously planned and expected events unfold in a different and interesting, as well as surprising way. I find that the two events, the planned-through and the seen-through take on some sort of dynamic equilibrium. I pass back and forth between a state in which I am impressed by the present moment’s own worth and a state in which I am driven on by the anticipated future.

Maps that indicate “scenic routes” are often a case in point. Sometimes the “scenic” nature is so self evident as it is substantiated by forests and mountain passes with dramatic views of river and rock and far-off valleys. But sometimes the map maker’s intention is captured by rolling grasslands and blue skies. Scenic is as scenic does — to the heart and soul.

This applies to more than just mapping in the narrowest sense. As I explained earlier, “mapping” is used in many instances and can describe the connections between any two entities in mathematics and data processing and in other parts of life.

Symbolic activities such as the writing I am doing right now and the reading that you are doing in a different “now” have particular value of their own simply in their very performance. To be sure, writing is a difficult activity, but the difficultly cannot obliterate the delight to be found in the exploration of another person’s images and ideas. Moreover, the activities of writing and reading have utility as well as intrinsic worth.

My writing activity, for example, is useful in that it leads to the production of words on paper or screen. However much I am centered on the internal exploration of certain questions and ideas, I also have an eye toward the external product. I realize that the product can by no means replace or wholly contain the inner process that leads to it — the external word is not the thinking process; the map is not the territory — however, the external word can extend the utility value of the thinking process by adding the dimension of portability. Since that portability has been exploited to the point where you are now reading my words, you are perhaps getting a sense of some of the things that I, the writer, am thinking about (journeys, maps, kinds of value, symbolic activity), and you may be finding this somewhat interesting.

In addition, your reading may be useful in that it leads to your taking some further intellectual trips of your own. Perhaps one or more such trips will result in external words, written or spoken, which in turn will function as probable see-through devices to help others not only get a sense of our inner journey but also initiate or continue inner journeys of their own. And so on.

And so we arrive at the rich genre of literature, the road tale, the travelogue. It’s a theme as ancient as writing itself, the Canterbury Tales were a road trip adventure as old as the English language, as much a part of classical literature as hip culture. On-the-road is a frequent location for a story of many types.

Without symbolic activities such as writing and reading, speaking and listening, there could be no sharing of our inner journeys. Without symbolic activities such as imagining and thinking, there could be no inner journeys in the first place. By “imagining,” I mean the formation of internal pictures, whether still shots or motion pictures. By “thinking,” I mean an internal process that includes such mental operations as wondering and expressing my wonder in specific questions, enjoying insights that meet those questions, and expressing these insights in internal words, wondering about the validity of my insights and expressing this wonder in further, reflective questions. I cannot imagine or think of an inner journey that would not be constituted by some blend of imagining and thinking.

Our thoughts are bent by our experiences. The territory becomes the map. I’m reminded of my German exchange student that told me, after a year in America, that he now thought in English. Years later, when we spoke, he said he now thought in German and had to translate to communicate with me. As I’ve struggled with advanced topics from mathematics to physics, I’ve ofter tried to think in a different language. Rather than mapping the concepts, I tried to understand them in their native tongue. I succeeded on occasion. An example is that I learned formulas by derivation, rather than memorization. I would create the formula on demand by connecting the propositions using the rules I had learned and adding constants to match the base units. Assistance such as "unit algebra" became my lingua franca, and I could reproduce certain equations without requiring memorization of letters. But so often the thoughts were beyond my grasp and I was forced into mapping them into more familiar concepts.

I was and am a constant note taker. I think that putting the lecture words down on a more permanent medium helps me to concentrate on the speaker's message. I don’t necessarily use the notes later. Just the act of recording helps me organize the message. Sometimes that works much better than other times. I haven't figured out why … yet. But I am thinking about it.

Perhaps this desire to express myself in a permanent and portable medium is the driving force behind this blog. I don’t know for sure, and I’ve done enough thinking for today.

No, I think it is time to get out a map and prepare a journey. What will I find on those pages? What wiggly line or notation will catch my fancy? That I don’t know yet. It is the undiscovered territory. But that journey keeps me young at heart and thinking. Surprises are always fun, and expectations can be met or exceeded. Time is on my side and life is about the journey.

So travel on my friend, travel on. Perhaps you can send me a letter from the future and tell me all about it.

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