Jun 11 2015
Not so very long ago, no paddler or hillwalker would head out the door without tucking a topographic map into his (or her) pack. But that was then. Today, even supposedly expert trekkers attempt winter ascents above treeline with no other navigational aid than a cell phone. And — no coincidence, this — I’ve lost count of the number of hikers I’ve met on nearby trails who were staring in obvious perplexity at a diminutive screen and wondering where the Google map went. They’ve learned, a little too late, that network coverage is a sometimes thing in much of northern New York.
“Do you know where The River is?” these would‑be aquarians almost invariably ask when they see me approach. I’m always at a loss how to answer. In truth, I’m reluctant to give directions to hapless pilgrims, even though I could easily show them the way to the water’s edge. (If they’d just unplug their ear‑buds, they’d likely hear the roar of the falls.) But I’m by no means sure that, having found The River, they could then find their way back to the trailhead. Which is why I started carrying a sheaf of photocopied topographic maps to give to anyone in need of direction. I figured this would solve the problem.
But it didn’t. Many in the Legion of the Lost looked at the photocopied maps with bemused bewilderment. I might as well have handed them a page from Newton’s Principia, in the original Latin, no less. That’s when it dawned on me that the art of map‑reading — at least the art of reading topographic maps — is very nearly a lost art. Like the Latin language, the language of maps must now be numbered among the dead, a relic of an extinct civilization. This is depressingly easy to understand. A lot of backcountry newcomers (not all of them young, by any means) have never seen a topographic map, let alone used one to navigate, and even some old hands have gone all‑electronic, convinced that the Age of Paper has ended forever. Still, newcomer or old hand, it makes no difference in the end. Any language grows stale for want of daily use, and the language of maps is no exception.
I’m going to try to do something about this. In short, I’m going to try to bring the art of map‑reading back from the dead. This won’t interest everyone, I know. Map language holds no mysteries for the dwindling number of paddlers who learned the art when they were young, and who have never ceased to practice it. They will find little or nothing here that is new. But others, less practiced or less adept, may indeed learn something to their advantage. It’s not as if Farwell and I haven’t written about maps and map language before, of course. We have. There’s a list of our earlier articles at the end of this column. Yet we’ve never attempted a primer on the subject. Until today.
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