Following the Flow

Americans are, by and large, not very geographically aware on either the larger or smaller scale of things. As long as we can find our way home from the mall and know where our yard ends and theirs begins, we pretty well have all the bearings from the landscape we need to navigate in the smaller world. And if the airline pilot or GPS can get us across the larger expanses, we’ll read a magazine while the world goes by. After all, if you’ve seen one planet, you’ve seen them all.

And I point the finger at myself in this as well, except that sadly late in life (my early twenties) I discovered the wonder of maps. And since those days, I’ve been both fascinated and enriched by mind-traveling over the lines and squiggles of a map. Any map, really.

From it will come troves of grounding and place-orientation in imaginary travel that places one town accurately in relation to another; follows the course of creek to river to sea.

If it’s a topo map, all the better. I can begin to understand why a given stream will curve and twist they way it does, guided and hindered by the hard rock core of old mountains, or having channeled its way through some less resistant extrusion of limestone or such.

A case in point: I spent a full day in Patrick County last week near Stuart, and a few weekends before had a book table in Meadows of Dan in the same county down below the Blue Ridge. A month from now, I’ll be spending the better part of a day in Danville, down near the North Carolina line and east of Floyd.

Meadows of Dan. Danville. It has to be the same river for which these communities are named, I reasoned. But how does it get from the Pinnacles of the Dan near Meadows of Dan to Danville, and where does it go from there? I confess, I hadn’t a clue. And now, I do. More, later.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. A trait (or addiction) I share. Whenever I discover a new link in my genaological quests or a new “friend” on the internet the first place I go is to maps to check out their world.

    My love of maps started a bit earlier though. I remember my families first cross country trip from Texas to Ohio and back. At the age of seven or eight I was the navigator in charge of the AAA map book for the trip. Reading the strip maps, announcing which town was coming up, tracking the miles we traveled…all from the backseat of a ’57 Chevy. Great fun.

    As a teenager I wallpapered my room with oversize index maps from the US Geological Service. Lord how I loved those free maps. The state of Texas covered a wall…

    Whenever I feel a bit closed in it is easy these days to take a trip any where in the world…even if only for a few minutes with Google Earth. Flying over mountains and streams I’ve never seen gives you a great preview of what might be…given later real opportunities.

  2. I also, LOVE maps. Food for the imagination. I didn’t gain an appreciation for them until my early to mid twenties. I took road trips with my husband very often and we really just loved exploring a town from what we had heard, seen or didn’t even know. Sometimes the cloak of mystery was MORE intriguing!

    I can’t wait to see what you found out!

  3. Adding to your first comment by gboyd, I too took a cross-country trip with my family. Sadly, I did not get to hold the map or navigate. I was ten, going on eleven and we took a five week trip from NY state to California and back. We went along the northern half of America there and came back through Canada. Here’s the kicker, we only had a pop-up camper (small 8 foot box) to sleep in. What an adventure!


  4. Dumb question, Fred, but where do you get topo maps? Since moving here, I keep getting surprised when a trip planned on a ‘flat’ map finds me climbing and climbing up the mountains.
    I’ve also come to appreciate the fact that we are only 23 miles from Roanoke in Rocky Mount, yet the weather can be amazingly different, particularly in winter.
    I, too, love maps but wish for that topo guidance!

  5. I always tell my kids the best journeys are the ones that begin by getting out a map. I’ve always been fascinated by them. One of my specialties as a Boy Scout was map and compass.