By Tim King
I know! I know!! With GPS you don’t need a map to get where you’re going. But I love maps. I almost enjoy them as much as going somewhere.
For one, I wonder as I pore over a map, why people named places the way they did.
For instance, if you pull out a Minnesota road map and look at Wadena County you’ll discover a small place called Blue Grass. I’ve been there and it’s a pin neat and pretty wide spot on a narrow county road. But why did it get named Blue Grass? Because its founders were fond of a certain sort of music? Or because they had a lot of Kentucky Bluegrass lawn?
Ottertail County has the village of Amor. Were the founders particularly amorous? If so why is it still small? Goodhue County has Wanamingo, which seems like it should be interesting but, from the highway at least, is the opposite of Blue Grass. Winona County, atop the Mississippi bluff lands, has Good View which is probably named that way for good reason. Murray county has the villages of Avoca, Iona, Fulda and Lime. Why Lime?
Putting aside village name places, consider rivers.
The shape of a Minnesota map is defined by rivers. Without rivers we’d not be Minnesotans. We are embraced by the Red River of the North and the Minnesota River headwaters on our western border. The Rainy, the riverine border lakes, and the Basswood River, along with the short but powerful Pigeon, create our telltale jagged international border.
The St. Louis, St. Croix and the Mississippi keep us from being Wisconsonites. On the South, the logic of the surveyor rather than the watershed determined who would be Iowan and who not.
But there, on the southern border, I’m told wet-backed northern pike swim back and forth between Iowa and Minnesota through nameless streams and creeks that are unchecked by political forces, and in ignorance of the niceties of survey documents filed in dusty drawers in government offices. These green fish, citizens of no state, swish in streams near places like Cherry Grove, Johnsburg, Keister, Ash Creek, Ceylon and Sioux.
But internal rivers and their maps are as interesting as the border streams.
Some time ago I planned a trip to visit a farmer in Lincoln County, on the South Dakota border. That’s up on what people call the Coteau, or Buffalo, Ridge. Outside of the Misquah Hills it’s the windiest, coldest, highest place in Minnesota.
To find my farmer I pulled out my copy of the Minnesota Atlas and Gazetteer. This book of maps celebrates Minnesota’s small places.
The Gazetteer showed me that I had to go to Shaokatan Township. This place is home to the headwaters, I learned, of the Yellow Medicine River. What a wonderful name is Yellow Medicine. From now on I want no medicine other than yellow. Up there on the Coteau the air moves clean and the grass ripples like a cats coat and the water is yellow medicine; good for you.
My friend tells me she likes maps because it’s the closest she’ll come to being a bird. If I were a Redtail Hawk soaring over the map of the Coteau each day would amaze me. From Canby to Porter down to Taunton through Minneota, Ghent and Marshall and down into Amiret Township and finally to Laura Ingalls’ Walnut Grove, thousands of unnamed streams pour cold and clean out of the hills and ridges of the Couteau. There are more streams coming off that Ridge than from anywhere else in Minnesota. Looking at a map of the area leaves a river lover breathless. It’s beautiful.
Besides studying topography and interesting named places, some people use maps to mind travel. If my friend is reading a book about Greece or Florida she’ll pull out a map of the place. Soon she’ll know as much about those places as a seasoned tourist. Some fictional books have fictional maps. I can stare at those maps and get lost in the fictional twists and turns of the journeys of an invented character as easily as I can get lost looking at a Minnesota road map.
I guess I just like maps. Maps move me. I’m not turning the GPS on.