The Cartography Cadet

Words and pictures: Beth Welliver

“A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams.”

- Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Editor of National Geographic (1903- 1954)

Every adventure starts with the idea of a place. A name and a vision of what might be there and what one can do there. Often the spark for that idea comes from a map. My daydreams are of new adventures in places I’ve never been, or places I’ve long wanted to explore. A place or trailhead name comes up in conversation, or I’ll see it on a random webpage, and the wheels start turning. Before long, I’m poking around on Google maps, before inevitably finding a paper map of the area to really immerse myself in the location. The paper map makes the place real — like somewhere I could really go.

When you break a map down, it’s really just a collection of lines and dots, letters and symbols, representing a rough and varied landscape on a flat piece of paper. These lines are the detailed artwork of a cartographer. When done well, the artistic interpretation by that cartographer will lead your eye to the best and worst of a landscape. Their interpretation of it tells the story of a part of the world, but leaves just enough to the imagination to encourage you, the map holder, to explore and discover.

In this digital age, it’s so easy to go on Google, enter a your start and end point, and generate turn-by-turn directions. It’s quick, efficient, and…boring. Digitally generated maps tell you exactly how to get from Point A to Point B, but there’s no imagination in the route. There’s no exploring. You’ll get there, but there’s a good chance you’ll miss the “good stuff” along the way. It’s just better with a real, paper map.

Growing up, our family always had a big atlas in the car. During endless hours of driving, to soccer tournaments or on family vacations, I’d study the pages. Sometimes, I’d just follow along with the route we were on, noting exits and rivers as we passed, but other times I’d find my fingers turning pages, wandering there way to other maps in there. The big states out west had mountains, and national parks, and curvy roads. The eastern states had so many cities and towns crowded together that pages seemed covered more with place names than roads. The central U.S. states held roads set in nearly perfectly square grids, neatly connecting small, county bergs. I would study the names of towns and forests and mountains and rivers, with my imagination painting a picture of what these far-off places might look like based solely on what the atlas said was there.

When I was about 20, the entire concept of maps changed for me. Survival training at the Air Force Academy did it. Up to this point in my life, a map was merely a nice artifact that visually connected two geographical points for me. It was simply reference material. That changed during training when I found myself and two other cadets, miles from anywhere, dropped off in the rugged woodlands of the Rampart Range above Colorado Springs. We had only a few pieces of survival gear, a USGS quad topo map, and a set of coordinates denoting where we would find our next meal and maybe a warm and dry place to sleep. In that moment, the map was no longer the comforting reference piece I was used to it being. In my hands was a piece of paper that held the only clue we had to find our way out of this completely foreign environment.

There was only one road on the map, and we weren’t allowed near it. No trails, no paths, just a bunch of squiggly brown lines overlaid on greens and grays. In the corner was a declination line to orient a compass, so that north really meant north. Somehow, this flat piece of paper told us everything we needed to know to get out. With no GPS we had to sort out where we were based on what was around and, you guessed it, the information on our map. We triangulated off a mountain peak, a saddle point, and a pond to find ourselves on the map, and then marked the coordinates of our destination. Walking in a straight line would not be an option — the closely-spaced, brown squiggly lines and the blue plant-like symbols meant there was a marsh that way — so we charted a course and off we went, hoping this piece of paper wouldn’t betray us.

Over the next three days, I found myself studying the map each time we stopped. I was fascinated by the way these seemingly random brown squiggles matched the world around us. At night I would turn on my red-lensed flashlight and study where we would walk come first light. I memorized each ridgeline and valley, the contours translating behind closed eyes to a pre-visualized landscape. My imagination filled in Pinyon pines and rounded rock formations too small to appear on the map, but the relief of the landscape — the deep ravines and domed hilltops, the broad marshes and narrow creeks — these details all came from this flat piece of paper in front of me.

I learned all sorts of little skills during survival training back then, and that’s given me the confidence to head out on just about any adventure now. I can find food, build shelters, and start fires. But I have to say that those three days, finding my way through an unknown landscape by simply interpreting crazy brown squiggles overlaid on greens and grays, planted a seed. The world was now open for me to explore with confidence — so long as I had a topo map.

I was now obsessed with maps and what they empowered me to do.

“The good cartographer is both a scientist and an artist. He must have a thorough knowledge of his subject and model, the Earth…. He must have the ability to generalize intelligently and to make a right selection of the features to show. These are represented by means of lines or colors; and the effective use of lines or colors requires more than knowledge of the subject — it requires artistic judgment.”

- Erwin Josephus Raisz, Cartographer (1893–1968)

My senior year of college I had a choice of elective courses. One option was differential equations, while the alternative was a new course called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS for short. I knew high-level math wasn’t my strong suit, so I opted for the much more interesting GIS course. The final project for the course was to create your own geographic information system — this was my chance to be a cartographer.

One Saturday that semester, I set off with a big yellow Trimble GPS backpack to plot the Falcon Trail around the Air Force Academy. I’d been on parts of this trail a few times and noted the blue blazes on trees. Intuition led me to believe that this trail formed a loop, but no dedicated Falcon Trail map existed. Keep in mind, this was 2002, and Google Maps had yet to exist. No one owned a Garmin. Strava wouldn’t be a thing for several years. Pieces of the trail appeared on various topo maps, but I couldn’t find a definitive resource to guide trail users. There was great mountain biking in certain sections, and beautiful hiking throughout, but unless you knew where to find the trail and the best sections, the trail itself might as well not exist.

This was to be my map.

I spent the entire day hiking with that big yellow Trimble backpack. I covered all 13 miles. The trail did, in fact, make a complete loop, and now I had 13 miles worth of data points — an x, y, and z — that translated to a latitude, longitude, and elevation for every point on the trail.

I went to class on Monday quite proud of my weekend adventure, but unsure of what to do with all these data points. It had been two years since survival training and that first encounter with a detailed topo map. That map proved to me that a piece of paper really could illustrate a complex landscape in a meaningful way. Now I would choose the features and details of this track that I deemed meaningful enough to share with others. Few people knew of the Falcon Trail. I needed each x, y, and z I recorded to become a trail and an enticement. I wanted to create the invitation for others to explore with the confidence they were going somewhere.

There are two sides to cartography. On one side is the science of precisely plotting the details and features in exactly the right place (an inaccurate map is worse than no map at all). The other side is the creative license given to the mapmaker. When making my map, I would decide what appeared on it and what didn’t. It was up to me to paint the picture of this landscape through the lens of a trail user. What did I want the user to see and find on the trail? What did the user need to know about the landscape? What did I need to tell the user, and what did I want the user to discover out there? The artistic refinement needed to create something inviting, useful, simple, and beautiful was a welcome mental challenge.

In the end, I optimized the map for the fitness user. Trail runners and mountain bikers could confidently find their way around the trail, knowing where they would encounter the steepest climbs, the best descents, and the sections that are just too rocky to safely ride. That semester spent learning the how comes and why fors of mapmaking only deepened my love of maps.

“Maps encourage boldness. They’re like cryptic love letters. They make anything seem possible.”

- Mark Jenkins, Author / Adventurer

I suffer from incurable wanderlust. I constantly want to be out somewhere exploring, but reality of a job, a husband, and a dog means that I can’t be out exploring all the time. I’m okay with that. Why? Because I wouldn’t want the daydreams of the next far-off trip to become old and commonplace. I never want the mystery of exploring unknown places to go away.

That said, sometimes that next trip is really too far off. My husband knows when I’m getting the itch to wander — I get out the maps. We own enough maps to cover our living room floor with the entire Sierra Range, from Tahoe to Whitney. If I want to stay closer to home, I lay out the Big Sur Coast/Ventana Wilderness grids. Sometimes I’ll order a gazetteer or a National Geographic map off Amazon for some really far-off daydreaming.

And just like when I was a child, I immerse myself in these maps. I trace routes with my finger. I plot routes to hike, to backpack, and to bikepack. Sometimes I create simple day hikes, other times elaborate multiday epics (epics that I’ll never actually do, but the process is a release). A single track to an alpine lake; a gravel fire road to what should be a great overlook to watch the sunset — every time the map gives me the concrete details of the landscape and my imagination fills in the rest, paint a complete picture.

Some people mediate or do yoga to clear their mind. Others ride their bike or go for a run. For me, time spent pouring over a map and exploring the details of an unknown landscape is sacred and special. It’s my moment of zen.

Even on the days when the next opportunity for adventure is far off, all I need to do is spend some time with a map. The rejuvenation that comes from the thought that some day I might get to explore that place is incomparable. And when the time for adventure does come, that time spent with the map empowers me to tackle it with confidence.




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