Since childhood, I’ve been a map hoarder – maps of countries, cities, universities, shopping malls, amusement parks – any graphic representation of places known and unknown. Tracing my fingers along road maps and mountain ranges, I have long been enamored with a map’s ability to create both a comforting since of understanding one’s place, as well as the allure of accessing places previously unknown.
The internet is a treasure trove of maps. I have spent hours happily clicking through old county atlases at Historic Map Works, sometimes for research, sometimes for fun, sometimes to trace the changes on a particular piece of land through decades of maps. However, if I had to give my heart to just one mapping web site – and I hope I’ll never be forced to put all my love in one basket like that – it would be Google Earth/Google Maps.
Through their incredible system of satellite images and street views, Google brings us face to face with ourselves and the effect we have on the planet. Flying over the prairie in Google Earth, we can see every single change human beings have made to the Earth, good and bad. We can see the evidence of our own history.
Earlier this week, I found myself playing with Google Maps, tracing the path of the Santa Fe Trail across Kansas after studying several National Historic Register documents at the Kansas State Historical Society web site. Imagine my sense of wonder, as I scrolled along U.S. 54/400 past Dodge City, and saw this:
That curve of tracks, like an archer’s bow holding the string of highway, are the result of thousands of wagons following the Santa Fe Trail, their wheels digging deep ruts into the prairie sod as they made their way along a rough 1,200 mile journey fraught with danger. The route was only officially used by wagons for about six decades, a geological moment in time so small it’s nearly irrelevant. Yet, 130 years after trains replaced wagons as the transportation mode of choice, an arch nearly two miles long remains to tell the story of people willing to put themselves at great risk to cross foreign territory. Over time, it is likely that rivers will shift, the ruts will fill in, or some weather-related catastrophe will obscure them. But right now, we have an easily accessible window from which we can peer into the past and glean understanding from something as simple as the path of thousands of wagon wheels.