Blog: Unreal Maps

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On a recent trip through the southwest corner of Wyoming, I experienced the most incredible map. I say I “experienced” the map because it is more than a map that you simply look at. This map is a biography, a history, a memory, a lesson, and a gift. It is a map of Wyoming and the west. It is a cartography of humanity.

Hanging slightly askew in a simple wooden frame on a rather nondescript sidewall at the museum of the Fort Bridger Historic Site is the “Map of Rocky Mountain West by Jim Bridger.” It takes me places.

Maps are not real. The Polish-American philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski said, “Maps are not the territory.” He meant that perceptions and descriptions (a map) of reality are not the same as reality (the territory) itself. Bridger’s map is not real. It doesn’t show the reality of the western terrain. Rather, Bridger’s map transcends reality.

Bridger’s map is unreal. And in its unrealness, I find reverence.

Jim Bridger (1804-1881) was “the Old Man of the Mountains.” He played a significant role in Wyoming’s history and the settlement of the west by Euro-Americans. He was a fur trader, a guide, an explorer, a trader, and a bard. Though illiterate, he used Shakespearian stories to entertain and communicate to both the indigenous and the emigrant.

Besides memorizing Shakespeare, he memorized the land—its ranges, ridges, and rivers, its plateaus and passes, its terrain and trails. Bridger mentally mapped the territory from South Park, Colorado, to the Yellowstone River of Montana, and from the head waters of the Green River east to Nebraska. It is unreal to think of his memory, let alone the extent of his explorations.

There is another reason the map is unreal. Bridger didn’t draw it. Not exactly. The map hanging unceremoniously at the eponymous fort is in fact a facsimile of a recreation of a rendering of a recollection of reality first drawn with a stick in dirt.

Bridger’s map is a lineage of copies. Although the framed map looks original in its creases and stained paper, there is at least one other version at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. You can find a digital version of the map at The copies of the map at Fort Bridger and the AHC are from an 1862 recreation by Col. William Collins, father of Caspar Collins, of a map Bridger rendered on animal skin with charcoal. The animal skin map was based on Bridger’s extensive recollection of the landscape he first drew in the dirt with a stick, perhaps at South Pass.

Bridger’s map was from memory to dirt, dirt to skin, skin to paper, and paper to pixel. Its uses also have changed.

How Bridger’s map has been used over time gives it more layers of interpretation. Originally it was meant by Bridger to graphically translate his memory of the obstacles and opportunities of geography. Col. William Collin’s version of Bridger’s map was a gift to Casper Collins for the purposes of military expansion and maneuver. Collins in turn gifted the map to John Friend of Rawlins. Friend was a soldier, telegrapher, miner, journalist, legislator, sheriff, judge, and collector. Sometime before his death in 1922, Friend gifted the map to historian Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard under whose ownership it was archived. Bridger’s map is archived memory.

That map is now a part of my memory. In it I see the power of the mind, the power of human connection to the land, the power of lines, the power of colonial expansion, the power of collecting and preserving. Jim Bridger’s map is as much a map of the humanities as it is a map of the West.

In his short fiction Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman wrote:

“One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.”

Maps are not real, and Jim Bridger’s map is unreal. And it is a good story.