This week’s readings focused on maps that either creatively represent real life or that exist in fiction. You Are Here, edited by Katherine Harmon, shows excellent maps of imagination, imaginary places, and people’s personal perceptions of the world.
It’s that last type of map on which I’d like to focus: the maps we make in our heads. We all do so; our mental maps tend to be based on our own personal experiences. After seeing the maps Rosendo Flores made for a previous version of this class (maps that resonated with me since I, like Rosendo, moved from San Antonio to Washington for graduate school), I’ve been thinking about how I perceive space in different places–particularly how my mode of transport determines how I see space.
Like Rosendo, in San Antonio I tended to drive everywhere (even though, after I returned from Peace Corps, I frequently took a commuter bus to my job at the Alamo; my dislike of driving was evident even then). Following a point countless others have made, the car obliterated distance.
But when I went to college in Pittsburgh, I didn’t have a car to bring–nor did I want a car. Instead, I relied on walking and on Pittsburgh’s bus system–at that time, at least, free to Pitt students who showed ID. Although I rationally knew that the City of Pittsburgh itself is much smaller than San Antonio, it didn’t feel that way to me, particularly when I went to visit my relatives. Although they lived only a few miles away from me, it took me 45 minutes to an hour, and two buses, to get there. Thus, the city seemed about as large as did San Antonio, where I could get the 15 miles from my parents’ house to downtown in the same amount of time.
In the Washington area, even when I drive, things seem further away than they did in San Antonio. Commuting from my apartment in Arlington to GMU campus, for example, involves less distance than did my commute from my parents’ house to downtown San Antonio. Yet, GMU may as well be the end of the earth.
So then the question arises: How do I represent my mental maps of these three cities graphically? Since this is for a blog post rather than a full project, I took screenshots from Google Maps to experiment. Laying out the journeys in actual space looks like this:
But here’s how I perceived those distances, due to means of transportation and traffic:
Thus, the maps of my perception are significantly different. As we’ve been reading this semester, the maps people see, and the maps they make in their heads, shape how they perceive the world. How do we as historians capture those perceptions when people didn’t write them, much less draw them? Can we know? Or are many of those individual perceptions, those individual personal maps, lost to history?
Addendum: This week I commented on Nate’s blog post.