A functional understanding of topo maps slide in and out of my grasp. One day, I’m sure that I’ve got it, I feel excitement at how the map reveals the three dimensional contours in a two dimensional presentation. I visualize in my head how the terrain should look and I pat myself on the back in triumph at finally conquering them.

Then, I get out in the field, align myself with known landmarks, and find myself confused at exactly which markings are which. Do the V’s point uphill or downhill? Why doesn’t that hill look like the map? The shape imagined in my head fades as I try to reconcile the landscape I see with the map that is supposed to represent it.

My confusion was compounded on the California trip. We had only meant to hike four and a half miles on that first day, but we overshot our intended camp and hiked much further. The second day, Ambrose insisted we were at one spot, and I thought we were in another. I was right, but doubted myself too much to have confidence in my assessment. The topo maps continued to mystify me.

For three years, Ambrose and I had hiked a little used trail outside of Donnelly, ID. It was only in this, the third year of visiting, that we managed to make in one day the tiny, unnamed alpine lakes that had been our goal from the very first. Our levels of fitness and preparedness had finally gotten our camp up to them, and we enjoyed the Labor day weekend looking out over them. But, having reached our goal at long last, we needed a new one.

Ambrose had one at the ready. The next stage would be to reach Stump Lake. Since we began hiking this trail, I had noticed how close the trail seemed to come to a particular summit, how it seemed to wind up very high, curling around the peak at the last possible moment only to drop down again in a switchback. I’ve had enough experience with topo maps to know that the closer the trail comes to looking like a zipper, the more steep the hike is going to be, but, once again, my visualization skills were simply not up to the task.

On this trail, there is a steep section that we have named Shit Hill- its switchbacks are bad, and made worse every year by the churning of motorbikes. Compared to the section of trail leading to Stump lake, that switchback is a tame little baby.

As I expected from the map, the trail curved around a peak- what I didn’t expect was the trail almost disappearing in a jagged tumble of rocks that called itself a switchback. I would not have gone one step farther if I had not had trekking poles, and I admire Ambrose for doing without. Going off trail to the top of Square Top was almost easier than figuring out where the trail turned on this section.

There’s a difference when you’re navigating by the seat of your pants versus trying to follow a trail. In a way, when you’re off the trail, at least you can never lose the trail. Being on the trail, and wanting to stay on the trail offers a different challenge of figuring out which rock jumbles are supposed to be there as part of the trail and which ones are supposed to turn you to the trail.

There’s also a difference between those lines on a topo map and the actual terrain, even if you do understand how to read them. I want to know that I’m right when I’m reading these maps, but there are all sorts of things that interfere with that. The maps are, for the most part, outdated. This shouldn’t matter too much, but in the last fifty years, some trails have actually been changed so that the path I’m on is not the dotted line on the map. The scale does not allow for changes of less than 40 feet to show on the map – in essence, I could climb up and down a three-story building indefinitely and see nothing but a flat on the topo map. Trees, the pesky things, get in the way of my clear visualization of the terrain beneath them. How do I know whether that land there yonder is flat or just has tall trees in some places and short ones in others?

After we got off the zipper switchback, we managed to get lost before finally spying what we are pretty sure is Stump Lake. We didn’t go any farther than spying it, however, because to get closer would involve hiking down. The down would not have been another zipper, but we still had to go back up the zipper just to make it back to camp. The new goal is set, and we know what we’re in for.

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