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The Unlost Art: Topo Maps
Bil Gilbert
November 25, 1974
Replacing the hearsay of hunters and trappers, they helped open up a continent and today are stimulating, even witty, company on the trail
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November 25, 1974

The Unlost Art: Topo Maps

Replacing the hearsay of hunters and trappers, they helped open up a continent and today are stimulating, even witty, company on the trail

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One need go no farther than the Geological Survey parking lot to find an exceptionally fine example of topographic bowdlerism. After years occupying scattered offices in downtown Washington, the Survey recently moved to a building in Reston, Va., a few contour lines or so away from Dulles International Airport. In the course of things it was discovered that a small stream ran past the new offices. It would not do to have an obvious topographic feature existing in anonymity virtually on the Survey's doorstep, and so the name Whiskey Barrel Run was proposed. Then, as things will be done in Washington, somebody in authority decided that the new building should not stand on the banks of a stream so coarsely named. The board decided on Stave Run as a colorful yet inoffensive name for the watercourse. But in making the change on the master map, a copying error occurred. Until the next edition, the headquarters of the United States Geological Survey will be located on Stare Run.

In 1955, in a fit of pique, I quit a steady job with what is sometimes called a future and decided to be a wandering journalist. It was an exhilarating time, but one in which everything save exhilaration was a rarity in a household that included two infants. One day a canoeist called to say that if a few of us clubbed together, each member could get a complete set of topos covering the white-water streams in the eastern United States. We could take advantage of the Survey's wholesale price, then 30� a map. Of course I wanted to be counted in. It was only when the enormous bundle of 250 maps, accompanied by a bill for $75, was delivered that I stopped to consider how much white water there is between Georgia and Maine.

There followed a domestic crisis. We paid for the maps by giving up cigarettes and movies and cutting back on the kids' mashed plums. For many years thereafter topo map was our code word for fiscal irresponsibility and an extravagant view of life. But since those days one or the other of us has paddled, hiked, ridden, spelunked and camped in most of the land depicted by those very dear quadrangles. The maps are now water-soaked, dirt-streaked, covered with cryptic notes: "water shrew—10/10/61:" "syphon cave—rope;" "NB—high water—flipped Cantwell;" "++ spring;" "hawk watch;" "JD Anderson—okay—get gate key;" "4WD only." Extravagant as those maps may have been, they are also the record of some extravagant pleasures.

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