The Map And The Territory

by Isa Robertson

Erik Grundmann broke camp at dawn. The air was dry and crisp. The sun hid, glowing, below the eastern horizon: it would be half an hour before it spilled over the canyon walls. He strapped his tent to his pack, and set out down the gorge.

Three kilometres on, the sun struck his face. His head was still groggy with morning; the coffee had been too weak to fully wake him. But some days it was better to take it gradually. He closed his eyes and let the golden light pour over him, so thick it was almost a liquid. Ah, the moment he’d been waiting for. Nothing like a well-earned sunrise…

Underfoot, something hidden by the brush crowding the deer path shifted on a tiny fulcrum. He lurched, and a shiver passed through his body. He tried to break his fall — but his foot struck at an unnatural angle, his ankle folded inward, there was a crunch of popping cartilage, and he crumpled to the ground.

Then the heat came; and the silent, emotionless tears of pain; and the feeling of gravel and dirt pressing into his cheek. The pain was worse knowing that it was all the result of such a stupid, stupid, ignominious accident. But this was the wild, and Erik knew better than to stay lying down more than a moment.

He sat up, propped himself against a boulder, took off his boot and sock, and felt the swelling flesh. It wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t too good. He took a sip from his water bottle, and then pressed the still-cool canteen against his ankle. Nothing broken — that he could tell. Give it a bit of time, and he would probably be able to limp along with a stick, if he was careful. But it was always hard to tell at first how serious things like this would turn out to be.

While he waited, he nibbled at his lunch, to distract himself from his ankle. Then he got out the map case from his pack. Under the plastic, the paper was off-white on its way to brown, but his grandfather’s sure black ink elevation lines, and the incomplete sections in pencil, were still legible.

The map was the excuse for this trip: his grandfather, Wallace Grundmann, had started it before Erik was born, because he hadn’t found any good survey of this curious valley only a stone’s throw from his cabin in the Chilcotin. Wallace worked on the document diligently, almost obsessively, on every trip to the valley. But he moved to Bella Coola when he met Elsa, and the map was never finished.

The passion for cartography, and wild places, passed from father, to daughter, to son, and when Erik found the map when he was cleaning out the attic of the Bella Coola house before the sale, some sixty years later, he knew it fell to him to finish it. He needed time under the open sky, anyway.

He assumed someone had mapped the valley by now; that it had a name; that it had trails, and garbage, and tourists. When he discovered that the tiny valley remained as uncharted as it had been in his grandfather’s time, it felt like a challenge. He would put it on the map. Now, here he was, in Wallace Valley, — his grandfather had left it unnamed — pencil in hand, filling out the details of where he had camped last night: one of the blank places. The sloped western side, a slide waiting to happen; the sheer eastern cliff, with the scrub pine…

When he had finished, and was satisfied his own lines equalled or exceeded the neatness of his grandfather’s work, he moved on to the area where he was resting and waiting to test his ankle.

Satisfied, he looked over the day’s additions.

Something was terribly wrong.

He could not place it, but there it was, hidden like Waldo in the elevation lines and call-outs. Let’s see… sun coming through the scrub pines… east … west…

His dyslexia had gotten him again! He had drawn the eastern bluffs on the left side of the map — and the western slope on the right.

Eraser poised over the perfect lines, he had second second thoughts: how sure was he that he was wrong, anyway? It’d be a pity to waste all that work, and leave the map smeared like an amateur. The sun had come through the scrub pines, true. But had the scrub pines really been on the eastern side? Of course they— no, now he wasn’t sure.

He had to get this right. He imagined Wallace looking down on him, with that stern expression. With his ankle, maybe it wasn’t smart to go on, anyway. Maybe it was best to stick within range of civilization while it healed. In which case, he wouldn’t lose any time by going back to last night’s camp, to make sure that the scrub pines and the bluffs were in fact where he remembered them — not where he had drawn them on the map. This was no place to camp. He had to go on, or go back. He was, he thought, about 98% sure that the pines and the cliff had been on the east. But 98% sure wasn’t enough to erase and redraw a map. He decided to turn back.

Hobbling along with his heavy pack, using a bent stick for a crutch, a slug would have had to use the passing lane. The sun had just about sunk below the western side of the canyon by the time he arrived at his old campsite.

The golden rays were slanting through the scrub pine atop the sheer cliff.

Extraordinary! He had drawn the map wrong, flipped from how he remembered it from the morning: and the map was right. Now, he clearly remembered the sun shining through the same scrub pine that very morning. Was the silence and stillness getting to his head?

He pitched his tent, made a fire, and ate. Then he got out the map, and worked on filling in details that he hadn’t been able to fill in from memory: different types of trees, more precise elevation lines, the contours of the canyon walls. He enjoyed the work, and it calmed him. By the time the light was too low to work by, the area around his camp was the most detailed section of the map. And details are infinite: space permitting, he could keep adding more, day after day, while his ankle healed, and never run out.

He knew he should stop before his hand began to cramp, and he started to make mistakes. But he hadn’t drawn the big boulder, one that had probably broken off the eastern slope at some point, and come to rest on the valley floor.

Carefully, he drew it, squinting at it in the gathering dusk, measuring it with his pencil and his cartographic instinct. Just as he was about to close the circle, a deer fly bit the back of his hand, and he flinched: the circle ceased to resemble the boulder. It now had a small hernia, a wart, facing his tent. Stupid! He got out his eraser, glanced up at the boulder, and—

The boulder now had a small hernia, a wart, facing his tent.

What. The rocky protrusion was about three feet across and two feet deep: exactly matching the jolt in the line he was drawing when his hand got bitten. A ghastly presentiment struck him: the map was the territory.

His mouth hung troutlike. His eyes saccaded, as if reading an invisible book, then fixated on the ground in front of him, and grew glassy.

Hurriedly, he drew an X on the map, and labelled it “treasure”. Then he got down on his knees, found a stick, and started digging. The branch frayed, then snapped. He scooped out the loosened dirt with his hands, until it packed up under his fingernails. Still scooping, his eyes cast about for a better stick. There. He got up and fetched it, looked it over, and broke it to create a sharper point. Then he got back on his knees and resumed digging, almost in a frenzy. Ten minutes later, he was sitting in front of a wooden chest with brass strapping, scared spitless.

His eyes bulged. What was it, a pirate cache? Leftovers from the gold rush? Something stolen from somebody? He had just written “treasure”. It could be anything. Was it cursed? Was it cursed?! It might be cursed! Now Erik Grundmann was really freaking out.

Panting, shaking, he erased the word “treasure”, and the X marker, from the map. When he looked up, the chest was gone.

Fireborn photons that had passed through the chest’s absence reached his eyes in nanoseconds. Time waited patiently while sluggish signals swept through Erik’s brain. Suddenly his body convulsed for primal reasons of its own, starting with a twitch of his jaw muscle, cascading outward, and finishing with a paroxysm of the legs and sucking in breath. And the implications of what he had not seen hit him.

I need a plan, he thought. I need… I need… I don’t know what I need. I need to think. That’s what I need to do. I need to think this thing through.

Where had the map come from, anyway? Erik knew that his grandfather had a fascination for the occult, but as far as he knew it had been purely an academic interest. As far as he knew…

He held the map up to the firelight, and looked at it with renewed interest. Eventually, he sighed, and gingerly slid the paper back into its case, exactly as he found it. Then he crawled into his tent and shut the door.

The next morning, Erik’s eyes were dry and bleary, and his mind was still racing. He had not slept, as far as he knew, but he had had plenty of time for mulling things over.

He sat in the morning twilight and got the map out of its case. If I fold it, he wondered, would the world collapse on itself and squish me?

He did not fold it.

Instead, very carefully, he drew a circle, and an aleph, and an aum, and, for good measure, every other religious and mystical heavyweight symbol he could think of, and labelled it, among other things, “God”.

Then he took a deep breath, shouldered his pack, and set out for it.



Isa Robertson tries to put the ineffable into words. Find out more at

Philosophy Note:

The Map And The Territory riffs on the “law of correspondence” (second verse of the Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, though I’m sure the idea predates that source); the oft-repeated maxim “[the] map is not the territory” coined by Alfred Korzybski; and beliefs regarding Voodoo dolls in many cultures. Alas, quantum entanglement is probably also involved.

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