Prairie Tayles: Travel before modern technology

Jun 11, 2017

Credit Creative Commons

Before my students read a section of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s travel journal about his exploration of Texas, I had them write directions from their house to a nearby destination. It sounded like a simple assignment until I add these qualifiers. They couldn’t use man-made landmarks or addresses in their instructions, nor could they use vehicles or GPS systems. They were limited to foot travel, and they needed to depend on the sun and stars for directions.

Once I limited their options, the noise level in class increased exponentially. “How can we give directions without addresses or things like elevators, highways, railroad tracks, and bridges?” The next question was, “How can we travel without a GPS?”

 “Hmmm, how can you? What do you have to use?” I asked.

After a great deal of hemming, hawing, and investigating Google Maps and Google Earth to see what natural features might direct a traveler to the writer’s objective, these budding explorers set to work detailing how a visitor unfamiliar with this area might get from point A to point B with the least amount of difficulty. 

When they shared their products with the rest of their classmates, we recognized the best instructions involved specific directions that often referenced the rising and setting of the sun or the location of the North Star. Another writing strength was the use of geometric terminology such as “Walk parallel to Middle Creek for so many feet or miles until you get to the big cottonwood tree, where you will make a perpendicular turn to the west.” Some students established guidelines such as walk at a steady pace for an hour. This certainly provided an estimate to guide others, and it gave me an idea of who had actually traveled such a route at some point in time.

This was a difficult assignment with the objective of showing students how difficult it must have been when the first explorers journaled about their discoveries in this country. After we read the short de Vaca passage in our lit book, we realized our narrator wasn’t only unfamiliar with the landscape, its vegetation, beasts, or its human inhabitants. He or the translator wasn’t very good with using pronouns either. This made it difficult for us to know whom or what the author was referring to on his expedition across what is now called West Texas. During the time he describes, this place didn’t have a name recognized by Europeans. It was simply described as a land of little water and food. Because of his confusing pronoun references, it’s difficult to identify individuals or cultures he refers to during this exploration. 

This task offered a peek at one obstacle newcomers faced before section lines and roads divided our nation into an easily navigable grid. After completing our directions, my students and I realized that highways and technology make travel easier. I think we all have more respect for folks who entered uncharted territory and tried to explain to others how to follow. It also makes me appreciate KDOT and their efforts to guide travelers safely to their destinations.