July 16, 2012
Map lovers, rejoice! The United States Geological Survey, headquartered in Reston, Virginia, is about to complete a massive project to digitize its cache of approximately 200,000 historic topographic maps, previously available only in print or in some cases out-of-print, meaning that people searching for a special old topo had to go to the archive in Virginia to take a look.
Who cares? Geographers, geologists, hydrologists, demographers, engineers and urban planners, to be sure. Also people interested in local history and genealogy, says the USGS. And, if you ask me, travelers who want not only detailed maps for pursuits like walking and biking, but information about what a place looked like in the past. For instance, the course of rivers before impoundment by dams, villages that have grown into cities, vast empty spaces in the West now crossed by superhighways, mountain ranges reconfigured by volcanic eruption.
Some of the oldest maps in the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection show the Chicago Loop in 1929; Tooele Valley, Utah, in 1885; New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1888; Colorado’s Mosquito Mountains in 1886. When taken as a whole, the collection can be considered a National Map, a cartographic library of “last resort,” says archive manager Greg Allord, containing hard-to-find maps when all other sources fail. Allord says that scanning is now complete, though processing may take until September and some maps found in other libraries will eventually be added.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t take much computer-savvy to search the collection by state, scale or original map name. I just tried it, successfully downloading and printing a 1886 topo map of the Escalante River watershed in southern Utah. What will I do with it? I don’t quite know, but it’s free because the collection is in the public domain and making it broadly accessible is part of the program’s mandate.
A few definitions may be useful for laypeople who want to try it out: A topographical map shows physical features and elevations, usually with contour lines. Topo mapping done by the USGS generally divides the country into quadrants, or quads, bounded by two lines of longitude and two lines of latitude; the most popular are 1:24,000 in scale (one inch on the map representing 2,000 feet on the earth surface), available in sheets that show 64 square-mile areas.
Since the advent of digitized maps, new words have been added to the cartographic lexicon like georeferencing (a method of adapting old map information to contemporary computer-based geography, a study now known as Geographic Information System or GIS) and metadata (background map information, sometimes part of the legend), not to mention technical computer terms like Bagit, TIFF, GeoPDF—but let’s not even try to go there.
There was, of course, no such thing as georeferencing when the USGS was created by Congress in 1879, chiefly to locate and describe potential mineral resources in great swatches of the country that hadn’t been closely studied. By then the government had funded several surveys, marking what Clarence King, the first director of the USGS, saw as a turning point, “when science ceased to be dragged in the dust of rapid exploration and took a commanding position in the professional work of the country.”
John Wesley Powell, the great Colorado River explorer and second director of the USGS (1881-94), believed it was impossible to convey geological information without a topographic component, though he came under fire from Congress for the added expense it entailed. As a result, topographical surveying has long been intimately connected to geology in the U.S. (unlike Britain, which has separate divisions for topographical and geological mapping) and the USGS is part of the Department of the Interior. The oldest maps in the USGS collection come from Powell’s time.
It’s fitting to note that the Smithsonian Institution was a supporter of Powell’s surveying expeditions; indeed, he went on from the USGS to serve as director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, later folded into the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology. And even now the connection remains strong with the USGS and the Smithsonian cooperating on the Global Volcanism Program, which publishes a Weekly Volcanic Activity Report detailing geothermic events that may someday require new topos.
May 30, 2012
Whenever my brother John tells me he’s planning a trip, right away I start angling to go along because he likes places no one else would think of, usually backpacking destinations in the great outdoors. It doesn’t hurt that he has the necessary gear and skills. I doubt I’d know how to pitch a tent or light a camp stove if it weren’t for John. When we pack up in the morning, he stands over me like a Marine, making sure I shake out the ground cloth before I fold it up.
In the car on the way we don’t need the radio; we pass the time arguing, usually at high volume.
I drive the highways, then he takes over on dirt roads, bombing over sand traps and potholes while I shriek. He hates things to go smoothly; when they threaten to he puts an edge on the adventure by telling me we might be low on gas or lost, a stratagem that made me insist on turning back halfway to the isolated Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. Both of us vividly remember the episode, forever defining us as travelers: I’m the wuss, he’s the nut.
But that’s another story. This one’s about the best trip we ever took, to Fish and Owl Creeks in the badlands of southeastern Utah. How John found out about the 16-mile loop trail on BLM land descending about 1,500 feet into a pair of narrow canyons that scrawl across an otherwise empty space on the map I do not know. He’s got a secret file folder full of such expeditions, I guess.
We reached the trail head about 50 miles north of Mexican Hat with afternoon shadows lengthening over the plateau, known as Cedar Mesa. That’s mesa, not butte; if you don’t know the difference between the two, you’re too much of a greenhorn to tackle Fish and Owl, which should not be attempted by inexperienced hikers, according to a map we got from the BLM. The trail is rough and hard to follow, marked chiefly by cairns; water is intermittent; and if something bad happens, help is not at hand.
For all these reasons, I advocated camping on top that night and starting out the next morning. But John overruled me, herding me into Owl Creek like a goat boy. We had to scramble down big boulders—me mostly on my tush—before reaching the bottom of the canyon, which narrows as it descends. Occasionally, I took my eyes off the trail long enough to appreciate the view at our shoulders of precariously stacked hoodoos and Cedar Mesa sandstone cliffs. Meanwhile, John was ever on the lookout for Anasazi rock art and cliff dwellings said to be hidden on benches above the creek.
By the time we finally stopped and set up camp, I was feeling surprisingly comfortable in the wilderness. John made freeze-dried lasagna for dinner and invited me to drink as much bottled water as I liked, thereby lightening the load; no problem when we ran out, he said, because—yum, yum—he’d use his purifier to treat the brackish water we found in sloughs.
I slept tight that night, blinking my eyes open to see a dark sky full of stars when I rolled over in my bag.
The next day’s hike took us deeper into Fish and finally to its confluence with Owl, where we turned downstream. Owl had stretches of running water, small hanging gardens and sandy shoulders where the path was easy to follow. I was ambling along when I realized my brother had stopped, bending over the trail where he’d found a mountain lion track.
Or were things just going along too smoothly for John? I bet on that.
We doubled back at one point, in search of a natural arch described on the map, but never found it. A mile or so short of the exit back onto the mesa, by which we’d close the loop, we found a second campsite, ringed by cottonwood trees, close to a flowing section of the creek. I took a dip, dried off in the sun, and figured I’d found paradise in a crack below Cedar Mesa.
More freeze-dried comestibles for dinner, another night in the bag, followed by a very stiff climb out of the canyon, John showing me where to step. For the last bit he took my backpack so I could manage the climb out, then handed it up to me when I got on top.
We were resting before finishing the last lap back to where we’d parked when a car drove up. A man and woman got out, preparing to start the loop hike the other way round, from Owl to Fish. Only, they didn’t have a map. So we gave them ours, crumpled and splotched, but no less welcome, told them about our beautiful second night campsite and exchanged addresses, promising—as travelers often do when they cross paths in outlandish places—to later exchange notes on our adventures.
I forgot all about it, though I could have told them how I made John drive 100 miles out of the way that day to clean up in a public swimming pool and buy groceries in the town of Blanding before car-camping that night at Natural Bridges National Monument, where John made sure I knew the difference between a natural bridge and an arch.
We went on from there to the infamous Maze and to a family reunion in the Colorado Rockies, where I celebrated my 40th birthday by climbing 14,259-foot Long’s Peak. So by the time I got home several weeks later those were the stories I told about the trip.
A couple of months passed and then I got a letter with a Boston return address from the couple John and I met at the lip of Owl Creek, enclosing the map we lent them and telling a tale that made my skin creep.
They found our cottonwood campsite and settled in, then woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screaming, hair-raisingly high-pitched and so close at hand they’d have sworn someone was being tortured just outside the tent.
Only one creature makes a noise like that: a mountain lion.
It went on for 30 minutes, at least, while they huddled inside, scared out of their wits. Then it stopped, though they didn’t go out until morning, when they found tracks right outside the tent. Each print was as big as a hand, with pad and four claws clearly marked.
I’d never want to come that close to a mountain lion, though I admit I’m a little envious it happened to them, not us. Never mind. I’ve appropriated the story; it’s mine now, too, because I’ve been to Fish and Owl. Travelers tales are like that. Free to pass around.
May 7, 2012
Just around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a much smaller suite of galleries is showing something special: “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan,” an exhibition mounted by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Founded half a dozen years ago and occupying a dignified building just off upper Fifth Avenue, the ISAW is a research and education center devoted to the study of ancient cultures that grew up beyond the Mediterranean basin in some of the most far-flung corners of the globe.
“Nomads and Networks” (open through June 3) focuses on Central Asia’s four corners region where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. For travelers, it is a storied place of ever-frozen mountains and steppes where it’s thought horses were first domesticated sometime around 3500 B.C. Bridled and saddled, they became not just a means of transportation but a cultural icon for the nomadic people of eastern Kazakhstan’s Altai and Tianshan regions, who left no written record, though they were mentioned in “The Histories” of Herodotus.
It’s a small exhibition composed of just two rooms of 250 objects borrowed from four museums in Kazakhstan, displayed for the first time in the U.S. They come from single finds and archaeological digs into burial mounds known as kurgans now being excavated in Kazakhstan. One gallery is devoted to a kurgan that is thought to have held the remains of a chieftain, buried with 13 horses, sacrificed in formal regalia. The animals’ tack, carved of deer horn, ornamented with gold foil and cinnabar, testifies to the artistic sophistication of the nomads. A piece of a saddle made of felt and wood occupies a showcase nearby, preserved across millennia by permafrost, which served as a sort of refrigerator for organic material that would have otherwise decayed. The analysis of human remains also preserved by permafrost has revealed that nomads of the Asian four corners region wore full-body tattoos and knew the secrets of embalming, carrying mummified corpses with them through frozen winters until the ice melted and the bodies of the dead could be interred.
A second room displays a collection of 23-karat gold ornaments, highlighted by what is known as the Kurgan Diadem, a hammered gold band with imagery common in neighboring China, suggesting the reach of nomadic contact and trading. Just as stunning are four tray-like objects, mounted on conical stands, bearing creatures out of an ancient box of Animal Crackers: horses, deer, ravens, two-humped Bactrian camels and snow leopards.
Though the function of many of these objects remains unknown, the exhibition’s objective—to show that the nomadic people of the Central Asian steppe were anything but the biker guys of the ancient world, that they lived in coherent communities and had their own understanding of this life, as well as the next—is evocatively fulfilled. Only, now I’ve got to add another place to my travel list: Kazakhstan, hopefully on horseback.
May 2, 2012
When a storm dumped eight inches of snow on Rome this winter, I pored over photographs of the coated Colosseum, Forum and Piazza San Pietro, thrilled to reports of Romans shoveling streets with wooden spatulas, and above all wished I’d been there to see it. My friends in Rome reported frustration over coping with the deluge, and while there were no fatalities, the storm snarled traffic and stunned a city that thinks it only rains in winter. It made me remember the old story about how the site for Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was chosen when the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius on the night of August 4, 352, telling him to build a church where a patch of snow appeared the following morning. Santa Maria della Neve, as the basilica was originally called, duly rose on the Esquiline Hill, ever after the scene of an August 5 pontifical Mass celebrating the miracle.
Snow when you least expect it—divine apparitions notwithstanding—always seems a miracle to me, even when it wreaks havoc for travelers. My brother and I once went back-roading in northern Baja’s Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. Stuck in a four-wheel drive vehicle on a rutted track leading toward 10,157-foot Picacho del Diablo, we set up camp, hoping to hike out for help the next morning. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, warm enough for shirt sleeves, but that night it snowed, leaving the two of us to shiver in front of a feisty little campfire until morning.
We’d forgotten a simple truth of geography and meteorology: the higher the elevation, the more likelihood there is of snow, in any season. It doesn’t take a genius to know that, but I forgot again on a trip to the Canary Islands, where I’d gone seeking sunshine while living in Europe a few winters ago—not an outlandish plan given that the Spanish archipelago is 100 miles off the coast of Africa at about the same latitude as the Sahara Desert.
My plane landed late at night on the main island of Tenerife, where I rented a little tin can of an economy-class car and set off for the Parador de las Cañadas del Teide on the flank of 12,200-foot Mount Teide, a 40-mile drive from the airport.
Up I went on a switchbacking road through lush forests of Canary Island pines that eventually yielded to ground-hugging broom and juniper, crossing razor-back ridges lined by steep precipices that offered heart-stopping views of lighted towns on the coast below.
Then it started to snow, at first softly and prettily. Alone on the road, I counted my blessings to be there to see it. But the dusting thickened and soon I was driving through whiteout conditions. I couldn’t believe it, but kept creeping along, eyes straining, fists glued to the wheel as the windshield wipers fought vainly against the onslaught and the car skidded. When another vehicle finally came by, headed down the mountain, I pulled over, flagged it down and hopped in the back seat, abandoning the rental to a snow bank and myself to the kindness of strangers. My saviors were a young man and woman who gave me a drink of good Spanish red wine to calm my nerves and ultimately deposited me in a hotel on the coast. I awoke the next morning to balmy blue skies, wondering if I’d only dreamed of snow. But the rental agency told me I was lucky to have made it down the mountain because the Teide road was closed, meaning I had to wait another day to reclaim the car in a tow truck.
Memory, which has some of the same white-washing propensities as snow, has resolved the nightmarish events of that night into an amazing adventure. I still tend to forget that winter is a frequent visitor at high elevations. And finding myself in snow when I least expect it will always seem to me the same kind of miracle that told a fourth-century pope where to build the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
April 11, 2012
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano’s recent visit to Vernazza—one of five villages along Liguria’s fabled Cinque Terre coast—signaled a comeback for a region devastated by flooding and mudslides last fall. On October 25, 2011, the delicate and precious little Cinque Terre, strung along approximately ten miles of heavenly Italian littoral between the towns of La Spezia and Levanto, received a pounding 20 inches of rain that turned streets into raging rivers, filled homes and businesses with debris, swept away mudslide barriers and obliterated sections of the beloved coastal path that connects the hamlets of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In Vernazza, three people died and the village was temporarily evacuated. After the disaster it seemed unlikely that spring and the visitors it brings would ever return to the Cinque Terre.
But spring has come, along with crimson poppies on the shoulders of the Via dell’Amore path. Vineyards that cling to steep cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea are greening, promising a fine fall harvest of the grapes used in the region‘s sweet, golden Sciacchetrà wine. Olive trees are unfolding, ready for their annual pruning. Work to rebuild the damaged villages and erect protective mudslide barriers continues, but many townspeople have moved back into their homes and businesses have rushed to reopen for the spring tourist season.
One of the happiest chapters in the story of Cinque Terre’s renewal is the effort made by three American women—Ruth Manfred, Michele Lilley and Michele Sherman—longtime Vernazza residents, to get the news out about the disaster and raise funds for relief. Shortly after the floods, they launched Save Vernazza ONLUS, a not-for-profit organization that has received almost $200,000 in donations to be used for rebuilding Vernazza’s historic center, restoring the scenic trail system and replacing the dry stone walls that are an integral feature of the landscape. Beyond rebuilding, the hope is to promote sustainable tourism in the heavily visited Cinque Terre. “We are making Vernazza more beautiful than before,” Mayor Vincenzo Resasco said, though I don’t know how that could ever be so.
Starting from Montorosso, I walked the via dell’Amore 20 years ago, before the Cinque Terre became an Italian national park and Unesco World Heritage site. It was early spring and I had the whole coast to myself, it seemed. Near Vernazza I climbed onto a boulder just above the sea to work on my tan, then lunched in Corniglia, filling my canteen with leftover wine to take me on to Riomaggiore. That day exists in my memory like one of those old colorized photos that give the places they depict an air of fragile permanence. Let’s hope that, come wind and rain, that air persists in the Cinque Terre.