Now and then somebody will claim something is good the Kelty backpack, wild-strawberry mousse, the Ozarks. The list is getting so short nowadays that it is senseless to insist on proof or to quibble about degrees of goodness. So, to any All-Good List just add U.S. topographic maps. The topo is infinitely useful and always works, an indispensable tool of industry, commerce, agriculture and science; a companion in sport to the backpacker, paddler, easy rider; a lifesaver to the lost and confused; a wish book to the would-be adventurer. And at 75� a throw a topographic map may be the best bargain our industrial-technological system has yet produced.
I came to topos disgracefully late in life. At 24 I was perhaps more knowledgeable in geographic matters than most. Since the sixth grade I had been able to name the states of the union and their capitals. Later I had learned enough about the shifting frontiers of Rumania, the location of the Persian Gulf shiekdoms and the republics of the Soviet Union to graduate from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Moreover, I was personally acquainted with a good many woodlots, swamps, lakes and stream courses in southern Michigan, having tagged along behind my father, a botanist, as he beat a path to some spot remembered as being a good place for lady's slippers, soft-shelled turtles or maybe luna moth cocoons.
By the time I was in my 20s I could even navigate a car between Washington and Kalamazoo, and probably could have found St. Louis, Waco or Billings if absolutely necessary. However, I would have had no chance of retracing the route my great-grandmother took on her oxcart trek from Louisiana to Michigan, or finding the spot on Maria's River where the Blackfeet raided Meriwether Lewis' camp, or discovering the only place in North Carolina where the elusive water shrew could be trapped. In sum, I could not find much of anything if it was not on a gas station road map or if somebody did not guide me.
All of which brings me to June of 1951. I had made the acquaintance of several experts employed by the U.S. Geological Survey who were interested, as I was, in retrieving aboriginal artifacts from the limestone caves of the Virginias. On the weekend in question Hack, Ed and I drove several hundred miles west and south of Washington. The farther we got into the Appalachians, the narrower and more circuitous the road became. Finally we turned off the last public road and slowed down beside an abandoned cabin. "That must be it," Ed said, "the first building past that last crossroad." We continued down an overgrown woods road for a quarter of a mile until we reached a brushy pasture on the bank of a James River tributary.
Hack fished out a rolled-up tube of paper from behind the front seat. It was a 7� minute topographic quadrangle of the area, the first I had ever seen.
"O.K.," he said, unrolling the map on the hood, "that has to be the cabin where we turned." He pointed to a small black dot. It was obvious neither he nor Ed had ever been where we were standing. "I was looking at the sheet the other night, and it seemed this pasture would make a good place to camp. We can work downstream. See that bench half a mile or so down, right at the base of the ridge?" He pointed to a small elliptical space on the map. It was bounded on one side by a blue line that I decided had to be the stream. I had no idea what a series of thin brown lines might represent or even what a "bench" might be. Yet so far as Ed and Hack were concerned, this map was as commonplace and obvious a tool as a wheel.
"That's the kind of place they liked to camp," Hack went on. "There should be holes or overhangs in the face above the bench. The water will be shallow where that contour comes down. They might have built a fish trap there. Anyway, it is worth checking."
As it happened, there were the remains of an old V-shaped fish trap made with boulders in the riffles above the bench (which turned out to be the river's earlier floodplain) and an overhang, sheltering a flat ledge, halfway up the ridge. During the weekend we found some Indian pottery and an awl. More important, after surreptitious interrogation I found that anyone could go into the Geological Survey sales office in Washington and buy a map like the one Hack had. The next week I did that, picking up the quadrangle on which we had found the shelter cave, along with half a dozen other maps of places I had been wondering about, and privately I learned how to decipher them, a very simple process. Ever since, I have been using topos and, in consequence, can locate any plot of ground in the United States that appeals to me and have a reasonably good idea of its character before I get there.
There is a certain figurative similarity between my own climb up out of the pit of topographic ignorance and that of American society in general. The first European colonists had spent a century and a half huddled along the Atlantic Seaboard. A principal and practical reason for their lack of venturesomeness was that they simply did not know where anything was in the lands to the west. In those days anybody who was pushed into the interior wilderness did what a mapless man always must do—tried to find a guide. As a practical matter this meant catching and bribing or wooing an Indian. This system was all right as far as it went, but it did not go very far. James Fenimore Cooper to the contrary, the average buck of the Eastern woodlands was good only for a few miles beyond his own wigwam. After that his geographic information tended to be confused, if not downright mythical. Uncounted numbers of would-be settlers left their hopes, sanity and bones in the wilderness because they had tried to follow trip tickets scrawled on a piece of moldy deerskin by some know-it-all Iroquois or Cherokee. ("Paddle up the River of Swans, turn left at the second moon. Proceed through the land of the bearded dwarfs, turn right before reaching decayed bear paw nailed to a chestnut snag. Avoid large cavern in which the Northwind lives. Cross a lake of fire and continue until reaching Big Rock Candy Mountain. If in doubt, ask for Old Man Coyote.")
So handicapped, the settlers learned about the new land more or less as I learned about Michigan swamps, slowly and empirically. They edged inland, one plowed field, one muddy section of road at a time, their progress complicated by a variety of problems that a good overall map could have relieved or simplified. For a long time private citizens, states, even nations, were hazy about what land they owned or where property boundaries were located. Inevitably bitter land disputes, bloody family feuds and at least one war between states ( Michigan vs. Ohio) were spawned. More than a couple of generations of country lawyers grew rich from this mapless mess.