The Myopia of Scale

The maps were published twenty years apart and drawn to different
scales, and we’re in the seam, the area of overlap between the maps
where six or seven trails intersect.

—Rick Bass, “The Lost Grizzlies”

We are in the narrow bottom of Palmer Canyon, deep in the backcountry of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, when she breaks down. We had pushed hard past the noisy group of young boys at Palmer Lake in hope of reaching the flat open meadow of New Fork Park. Now Jenn is crying, standing on a gravel bar between braids of river bed with no sign of a definable trail, both sobbing and yelling at me. “I fucking hate this!” she shouts. There is nothing I can do to make her feel better. We are both stuck in this canyon, surrounded by steep walls and tall grass, left with no choice but to hike on up and out, hoping to hook back up with a maintained trail. A trail that will not offer us surprises, lose us in the seams, or subject us to the myopia of scale.

Later, I will blame the map. I am used to the more detailed 7.5-minute topographic quadrangles at 1:24,000 scale, as opposed to the larger 15-minute map (1:48,000) we were using in the Wind Rivers. I had a compass. I know how to use a map, how to decipher the cryptic language of lines and colors. Yet, I feel as if the map let us down, had not prepared us for what we might find along those trails, or the trails themselves. We bought the map, A Hiking Map & Guide: Northern Wind River Range, WY (new waterproof edition), at an outdoor store in Pinedale. A gold sticker on the cover excitedly announced “Only $7.95!” and the blurb at the bottom was from the editors of a well-established outdoor magazine: “Ultimate maps!” But despite all the trails being marked and the contours drawn, as well as the warnings and guidelines located in the accompanying text, something was overlooked by somebody somewhere. I would not consider me and Jenn novice backpackers, having spent a fair amount of time in the out-of-doors humping full packs across a wide variety of landscapes, but the map left us unprepared for what we encountered in the Wind Rivers.

The Highline Trail winds up the narrowing valley, long stretches straight up a grade, the rocky trail surrounded by house-sized boulders resting at the base of huge fans of scree. All around, dense stands of fir beard the chutes all the way up to where they appear to be nothing more than hints of serrated color, a clump of grass, moss on a rock wall. Looking up-valley differs from down-valley. The entire thing opens behind us, the Green River curling through the meadow far below, nothing more than a blue line from this vantage point.

“If you don’t stop,” Jenn says, “I’m going to throw a rock at you.”

When I turn around, the narrow valley unzips to reveal how much altitude we’ve gained and also how red-faced and out-of-breath Jenn is. This is on Day One. I have to admit that I am scared, afraid that things are not going to go well, that this trip will be a failure. Now that she has threatened to throw a rock at me, my imagination takes over and I start to worry again. But I should have started worrying earlier, when the backcountry rangers told us about the grizzly haunting New Fork Park. Or earlier still, when the off-duty ranger tending bar at the microbrewery in Pinedale told us about the grizzly shot and killed for feeding on cattle on the other side of the river. After leaving the microbrewery, we spent the night on the banks of the river, dark fingers of Douglas Fir creeping around the meadow down to the road alongside the Green River, cows dipping their heads to drink on the far side. Driving in, we passed a lone sign rising from the sage. “GRIZZLY BEAR AREA,” it read across the top. “SPECIAL RULES APPLY.” Centered on the field of institutional brown is an enormous cream-colored paw print, the definitive claw marks pointing up-valley into the aspens crowding the road as it enters the hills. The symbol of that bear, its track, indelibly pressed into our imaginations for the remainder of the trip.

A topographic map uses a code of symbols, lines, and colors to describe the land it represents. However, what I referred to earlier as the myopia of scale becomes readily apparent when this code is examined more closely. Green patches represent vegetation, but this could be a broad meadow of soft grass or a dense copse of trees littered with deadfall. Blue lines represent creeks and rivers, but speak nothing of flow rates. Any blue line might be an ankle deep creek or a muddy, raging torrent dragging boulders along the bottom. This is all elementary and, I would suspect, common knowledge among anyone who has ever used a Rand-McNally Road Atlas to get from Point A to Point B.

Part of the problem, then, is the legend itself. For on the map, the red dots used to connote trails are just as wide as roads of all varieties, from paved to four-wheel-drive. At this scale, the scale we were using in the Wind Rivers, steep switchbacks are readily identified where the dots double up on themselves. However, the dots are too large to follow the contours, offering an illusion of ease. What might be eighteen switchbacks shrinks to four, and the steep slope is easily covered by a trail forty feet wide.

Scale is important when considering the map as mere representation. When laying a drawing of the land over the real thing, something gets lost in translation. The two do not quite fit. Therefore, when using maps, we must rely on our imaginations to comprehend how we are going to move through that landscape. The code is not enough. We must exceed our roles as readers and become active participants, seeing the map in ways beyond how the map wants us to read it.

A map like ours offers some sort of interpretation. The title claims that the item is more than a map, also a “guide” to the Wind Rivers. The subtitle information is more specific: “Backcountry Regulations & Trip Planning Information.” The text which runs along the bottom of the map covers a variety of topics. It starts with some natural history of the Wind River Range; that is, a catalog of quantities meant to qualify these mountains as deserving of special consideration. Two-point-two-five million acres, 110 miles long, 40 miles wide, over 700 miles of trails, 48 peaks over 12,500 feet, 2,900 lakes and ponds, seven of the largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, and three Wilderness Areas. From here, the special consideration these mountains require is clearly explained in an appeal for backcountry users to respect that landscape: “Wilderness is a special resource; it deserves careful stewardship.” The map, like the road sign warning for grizzlies, offers us a particular way to consider the landscape: special rules apply.

Emergency information and water warnings come next, as well as a lengthy discussion of the difficulties one might encounter using trails in the wilderness areas and the Winds in general. An italicized statement makes a bold suggestion: “Bottom line: Carry a topographic map and compass—and know how to use them.” As I explained earlier, that does not seem to help when relying on a map of this scale. A later statement suggests, “Don’t expect bridges.” How we should be relating the map to the landscape is clearly explained. Or, is it? Perhaps a more apt warning would be: Don’t expect this map to be an accurate representation of the landscape. However, that would be counterproductive, for is that not exactly what maps purport to be?

The remaining text is on the flip side of the map, and here the gentle urging of the management agencies in the introductory paragraphs becomes more official with the listing of rules and regulations for travel in the backcountry. These regulations present a paradigmatic case for panoptic surveillance. While in the woods, many of us feel obligated to obey the rules, despite the fact that the chances of running into any authority figure is slim to none. Here, the map text itself acts as an agent of the institutional powers, enforcing a self-conscious adherence to the rules. For every time we open the map to check our location, we are also being reminded of whatever it is that we might be doing wrong: camping within two hundred feet of water, not hanging our food, picking wildflowers. How we should conduct ourselves in the backcountry is dictated by the map.

This text concludes with a brief explanation of the possibilities for extreme weather and its dire consequences. Here the map gives us what to expect from the material conditions of the landscape. The warnings and dangers highlighted in these paragraphs contrast sharply with the inviting rhetoric of the opening paragraphs’ catalog of natural wonders. The closing line states, “Your life may depend on your ability to keep warm and dry until conditions improve or help arrives.” How about: Your relationship with your wife and your very own sanity may depend on your ability not to trust your map to have all the answers.

New Fork Park is a narrow strip of flat ground between the river and the sloping walls of the valley. The rules can’t be applied here, and we spend the night scared shitless wondering if we are going to be eaten. I don’t think that we see the same bear in our mind. Jenn has sat in tents as black bears snuffled around fellow campers’ tents, but she is spooked. She chants, a mantra shouted over and over again as we race against the gathering darkness to finish cooking dinner, “No bears. Nooooo bears. No bears.” I don’t see a bear, see only the brown sign that greeted us several days ago. I’m still struggling with the notion that our map (and the guidebook I used to research our route) told us nothing about the grizzlies migrating into the area from the North, from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I trusted the map to tell us everything we needed to know about this place, specifically choosing the Winds over Yellowstone or Glacier in a deliberate attempt to avoid the Grizzly problem. Jenn trusted me to plan the trip, trusted me to get us out of Palmer Canyon, trusted me to keep her safe, huddled closer to me as the dark rose up out of the valley floor to extinguish the last glow of light on the ridge. I’ll break the map’s rules, forego hanging the food bag and stash the grub under a log a good distance from the tent. We put our trust in something other than the map for a night.

Trust is a key factor when it comes to understanding just exactly what it is that maps do. The map is a tool. When lost, we usually blame the person reading the map, rather than the map itself. So, why on that day in Palmer Canyon, and even today, do I blame the map for my troubles, and not myself?

Our culture imbues the map with a certain amount of authority. More often than not, the map is created using the most up to date information available (most maps will have a date for the field check) from the most reputable sources (the United States Geological Survey) using the most recent technology (satellite images). We presume that these maps will be able to tell us everything we need to know, based on the fact that this information is current.

In other words, we value the recent maps as arbiters of truth in the landscape, and old maps are written off as out-of-date. Yet, oddly enough, our recent maps which offer the truer sense of the landscape are “Only $7.95!” The out-of-date maps are auctioned off on-line to be bound in secure collections. What does this say about how we value the landscape? Does this mean that we have no regard for what might be construed as an accurate representation of the land, as opposed to an imaginative one? Or is it simply a reflection of our culture’s obsession with antiquity: what’s new is mundane, something we use as a tool in everyday living; what’s old is art, something wrapped in an ages-old aesthetic of abstracted value?

Maps, through their codified legends of symbols, colors, and lines, textualize the landscape in such a way as to make it easy to abstract that landscape into nothing more than an image. An image we seek in recreation, so that we may “oooh” and “ahhhh” at the natural splendor to be found among the 2,900 lakes and ponds along over seven hundred miles of trails, always being sure to crap two hundred feet from any source of water, and keeping an eye out for that clump of trees we can huddle under in the event of a thunderstorm. Just like the map says. We do as we are told. Our wilderness experience becomes an exercise, one in which we shuffle along the red dots hoping those switchbacks are as short as they appear. But more insidious work is being done at the same time when it comes to those who do not look at the landscape in the pursuit of leisure.

Through a textualization of the landscape, maps can do great harm to the land itself. The extractive resource economies of the West are able to exploit such abstractions. Trees are first abstracted into the codified language of cartography as green blotches, then further abstracted into the language of economics as board-feet. Green blotches will continue to shrink in size on our maps, to be replaced by infinite white space ripe for development into malls and suburbs, if we continue to translate our reality into information. Our landscapes will become the stuff of legend.

We cannot let abstractions replace our reality. Why not? The current argument appears to be that nature is a construction, or at least, the values which we as a culture find in nature are constructed. Yet, those values are still valid. There is something about the land which resonates within us. It is what we are seeking in wilderness or in watching the wind blow through the trees from our kitchen window. I suspect it is this fact which leaves me uneasy about the map we brought with us into the Winds that summer, why I find fault in the map and not myself. For it is an unsubstantiated assumption that, in lines and symbols (and words themselves are only symbols), we can honestly represent the landscape to any accurate degree. This is what undermines the authority placed in maps. Just as the word love, even in context, cannot accurately describe the feeling, neither can the words Palmer Canyon, surrounded by numbered lines, accurately describe what is to be found there.

So what must be done? How do we correct this poorly-placed faith in artifact? The answer has already been given: reject the authority with which your map has been imbued, learn not to trust your map to be an accurate representation of the landscape, do not allow your map to become the arbiter of your wilderness experience.

We must learn to move through the land with a critical awareness of what the map both does and does not tell us. Terra Cognita. All maps are essentially blank spots that have to be filled in with experience. We must use our imaginations to navigate through the material landscape, rather than blindly allow a material object to tell us how we should imagine it.

A new paradox becomes evident here. Because the map is all I have left from the trip, the map is what I return to when showing people where we were. They cannot possibly see the granite towers surrounded by expansive skirts of scree, the pair of moose splashing through the lake, or the blue jade of glacial melt water that gives the Green River its name. All they see is a stream of red dots passing along blue lines among green blotches, a jumble of names and numbers. They nod politely. Not until I pull my hands away from the map and begin describing what we saw there do they begin to pay attention. But even that’s not enough, because now they are listening to my legend, and my image of the land gets drawn over the real thing. The story ends the same every time I tell it: “You’ll have to go there and see it for yourself.” Of course, I recommend using a different map, or others along with this one. Seven-and-a-half minute quads, 1:24,000 scale.

On my office wall are three such quads, each one representing a special place that resonates at a particular pitch for me. I have a matching map for Rawah Lakes, faded and folded, covered in dates written in pencil and little tent symbols in blue ink, sitting in a box in the closet along with all of my other working maps. During one long weekend, packing up to Rockhole Lake by way of Twin Crater Lakes, I stopped at a spot on the trail and pulled out my map. I had been following the trail all day, every day, every time I ventured into these mountains, only leaving the trail system when there was none.

Why is that? What was it about this official dashed line in black that so compelled me to follow it? Reading the contours, I could see numerous other possibilities. Was it the fact that I was unable to tell what the actual terrain would be in that green blotch, how flat or rocky the ground would be in that blank space? I decided that my destination was the same regardless, and so I left the trail and moved through the trees towards Rockhole Lake.

I was strangely quiet, seemingly less prone to talking to myself out loud in this uncharted territory. I felt as if I was the first person ever to pass this way. Deer did not see me coming until the last minute, bounding away with big leaps, the dull thuds of their hooves disappearing almost as quickly as the animal itself. I saw more deer in this forty-minute passage than I had in all of my trips to these mountains. This was a new experience. I would not pull the map out again until that night in the tent, planning my itinerary for the next day. It would not involve trails. I would break with those who decided which paths I should take, making my own way, crossing open ground, picking wildflowers.

I am not fool enough to leave my maps at home, like the doomed Chris McCandless of Into the Wild, but I am smart enough to know that we should be reading maps in a way which undermines their authority, resists abstraction, and places experience not solely in the hands of the cartographer but also in those of the explorer. I have developed a bad habit for bushwhacking, and when others who have not yet learned to cast their critical eyes upon their own maps, but rather at me, I quote one of my heroes, Doug Peacock: “Trails . . . fucking lack of imagination.”



Photo: gmiphone