Tuesday, September 6, 2011

west, vol. 6 (interlude: maps)

During my travels, I developed a slight obsession for mapping. I've been using Google Earth (and maps) for a couple years at work, mostly unsuccessfully, but have finally found an outlet plotting points of interest, bike & hiking routes, and running loops. Running routes actually provided my entry-point; while running my neighborhood route at home, I plotted it via Google Maps so I could calculate the distance I was running.

View Neighborhood Running Route in a larger map
And here-in lies another obsession; when I began running almost 18 months ago, I began to keep strict track of the distance and time of each session, perhaps a way of tracking my improvement, but more likely an outgrowth of my somewhat obsessive-compulsive personality.

The small 4-bedroom house in the West-side 'burbs of Kokomo necessitated that my younger brother, Wes, share a room with me, in which we had homemade bunk beds, a Nerf basketball drawer, more Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles paraphernalia than would seem financially possible, and most notably, a 1960s-era map of the United States, measuring at least 6-feet across, that my Dad had salvaged from a defunct classroom set-up. I remember plotting points and routes on the map, far before travelling by plane. Most years, our vacation consisted of driving south to Nashville, Tennesee, to visit relatives, or further south to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where we camped in pine-covered swamps at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

View Canal Route 1 in a larger map
Despite its flaws, the canal in downtown Indianapolis is a great running route. Though I hadn't ran on it till this weekend, it is free of street-crossings & most exhaust smell. Despite the Labor Day weekend ignorant pedestrians, long, reclined bikes piloted by poor-steering 12-year-olds, and fat, Segway-riding, jean-wearing tourists; running the smooth stones alongside the slow-moving, blue-green canal was a welcome relief from the neighborhood route full of potholes, buckled pavement, loose dogs, and throttling mufflers.

I remember running my finger along routes in-between cities, wondering how so many cities could be clustered in the tiny states of New England, and reading strange place names in my head; Nogales, Butte, Amarillo, Baja California. I had never been west of Missouri at the time, and so the West held a magical sort of realism, a place so full of names that it wasn't quite real at the time, more akin to the maps I pored over at the beginning of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which had equally strange names; Lothlorien, Mordor, the Shire.

Detail of LOTR map. I really like the contour lines denoting where the waters of Middle Earth begin. Just as when I was a kid, I always wonder what lay to the East of these mystically named lands...was it just vast nothingness? An evil worse than Mordor? I wondered the same thing about the edge of space, once I realized the universe was constantly expanding, which meant there was a constantly moving edge. Would you bump into it with your nose, like a sliding door made of glass?

At the age of 22, driving out West was a revelation in distance. Armed with only a free road atlas, highlighter, and a folder full of printed directions, we traversed the Deep South, Southwest, West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and Great Plains. All of the greens, pale yellows, and oranges of the 1960s canvas-backed map came to life in New Orleans, Albuquerque, Sacramento, and Spokane. The craggy-ridged mountain ranges were no longer bold textures drawn over blood-orange hued terrain; they were omnipresent in the horizon, looming over Seattle, obscuring San Francisco, bisected by a road lashed out of Salt Lake City that threw us out on to the plateau.

View Cabin in a larger map
Detail of the cabin weekend. Left point is the cabin, right point is Nooksack Falls. The green line is a trail running along the Nooksack River. More details on my encounter with the glacial-fed stream in my next post, West, Vol. 6.

Returning to the cool greens and yellows of Indiana was relief, though not temperature-wise, long-hair and patchy beard only exacerbating the 90-degee, humid weather. But on the eyes, after escaping through the harsh blues and yellow-browns of Colorado and Nebraska, the lush greens of Indiana, pole-straight cornfields occasionally interrupted by lush stands of elm, maple, and oak, the low-lying scruff of soybean leaves that seem a single solid mass until perpendicular to the exacting rows; the map wasn't lying with its colors, though accepting that I had traversed such a visual spectrum was still hard to swallow.

View Chuckanut Ridge Hike in a larger map
Hike taken on the last day of the 2011 Western Swing. Though the rise in elevation was only around 1300 feet over a couple miles, it was more taxing than I originally thought. Near the top of the ridge, I finally sprinted uphill as long as I could, bored by the interminable climb that had not yet produced a view. Ah, the patience of the Internet age. Less than 5 minutes later, we were rewarded with a sudden clearing on a sheer rock cliff, looking over Lake Padden to Mt. Baker.

Returning home from the West last October, after flying out over Mt. Rainier, the only identifiable Indiana object was Conner Prairie, identified by its stationary hot air balloon hanging stagnant over a quilt-work of crop fields and encroaching suburbia. There was no relief in this return, and there was none in my most recent return either, the night landscape of Indianapolis disorienting and unfamiliar, with not even a Lucas Oil Stadium sighting to grant me directional bearing. Again I had flown out in the height of a sunny day, passing Mt. Rainier while my seatmate took pictures out of the window. She noticed me staring, and paused so I could get a good look. I glanced, and realized that the view wasn't one that I could get tired of, wasn't one that I wished to leave.

View Bellingham Overlook in a larger map
A bike-ride-turned-hike to a spectacular ridge overlooking the city of Bellingham and the bay. An army of 30+ mountain bikers passed us near the top of the ridge, though I was glad we left our bikes at the trailhead a mile back. The trail opened to a dusty, street-wide path atop the ridge, and we plopped on rocks and tree stumps, eating blueberries and basil-wheat bread with goat cheese, warmed by the sun.

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