Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Mysterious World of Old Maps

    An old map of Paris hangs on the wall near my bed and it’s often the first thing I see in the morning. I can lie in bed in Washington State and navigate the narrow winding streets of the left bank or the Seine as it curves around the City of Light.
    In the hallway upstairs, a large 1981 map of a section of Lower Manhattan takes up most of the wall between doors and I often stop to study it as I pass, tracing my finger along avenues and cross streets, picking out familiar buildings and landmarks. I look at it and remember my first visit to the Big Apple that very same year.

    A vintage map of Italy hangs just inside my back door and on it is the port out of which my daughter sails on her marine geology assignments. Every time I go out I think of her and through the map I connect with my child who is so far away.

     I have many other old maps around the house. They are pinned to my bulletin board, tucked into drawers or slipped between the pages of my favorite books. I love to stumble onto one and stop to study it for a moment.

    In this age of GPS and voice-activated navigation, when my phone or my car can get me wherever I want to go, one clearly enunciated command at a time, I am still drawn to these printed relics and I keep bringing them home.
    Some I pick up because they are beautiful, illustrated with elaborate care and tinted by age.  Others because they remind me of places I’ve seen or they inspire me to go where I’ve never been.
    But some of the maps in my possession were chosen as much for their mystery as their beauty. Like the WWI era map of Paris and its environs with the name of a British officer of The Queen’s Regiment and the dates 1914-1920 handwritten in ink on the front.

    I found it and bought it online and when it arrived I unwrapped the package and carefully unfolded the 100-year-old paper-on-linen map. Intrigued about the man who’d owned it, I managed to find what appear to be a partial military record for the Captain Francis. The single index card states his medals—the war medals mailed to every veteran— were returned, the package marked with the words “Gone away.”

        Holding the fragile linen and paper remainder of a life I can only imagine, I’m left to wonder what became of the man who must have studied it often as he drove on roads around the city, in a country torn by such a brutal war. Where did he go after the fragile peace was restored?   

    Gone away. Such power in two words. I wonder about Captain Francis’s life after the war. Why did he label his map 1914-1920 when the war ended in 1918? Did he remain in France instead of returning to his life in England? Was he one of those who lost themselves somewhere in the shattered landscape?

    So many questions and so few answers.

    I’ll probably never the mystery of N.B. Francis. I keep looking but so many records of the First World War were destroyed by the second and there is precious little to go on. 
    A man who was a stranger to me lived and died decades ago, but I can still follow his shadow back through time and into a period of history that changed the world. He left a map.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s writes the Home Planet column for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at

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