The Last Map Makers

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JUNE 12,1989: The number of cartographers who still go into the field to compile maps for the U.S. Geological Survey has dwindled to about sixty, and five of the best of them are seated around a table in a trailer park in Mountain Home, Idaho, shivering in the unseasonable June weather and eating elk meat shot by their boss, Jim Hanchett.

“When I started in 1970, there were one hundred and thirty-five people in Field Surveys for the Western Mapping Center alone,” says Hanchett, a quiet, bowlegged outdoorsman. “Now there is no Field Surveys for the Western Mapping Center.” Hanchett and his crew are in Mountain Home for the Department of the Interior to mop up one of the last areas of the country that have not been updated at 7¼-minute scale. This is the standard scale for maps used by people in the wilds. If you put the maps edge to edge, they would show the United States the size of four football fields; you could jog our coastlines and borders at three laps to the mile. The national project has been going on continuously since the 1940s and is within a year of completion. When it’s over, an era will pass. Except for revision work in the field, most mapping will be done by satellites carrying cameras.

The Mountain Home crew starts its day with coffee at the Gearjammer truck stop off Interstate 80. The Gearjammer is just down the road from Rattlesnake Station, an old stagecoach stop on the Oregon Trail that later changed its name—and location—to the more appealing Mountain Home. The temporary U.S. Geological Survey office is in an old skating rink at the edge of town. It has a cracked cement floor and Bureau of Land Management maps tacked to the wall. After coffee the field workers—Phil Ibarra, Abe Trimble, Joe Sadlik, and Jamie Schubert—assemble and decide how to tackle the day. Jamie is the only permanent woman field worker in the Western Mapping Center and—as the last person to be hired before Reagan-era freezes—is a youngster, at thirty-two. She has been in the field for seven years. “I used to have a home,” she says. “Now people ask me where I live, and I don’t have anything to say. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d probably run away to Alaska again.”

 

U.S.G.S. field workers seem to share this sort of wander-lust. Few of them are married. In their heyday caravans of field workers crossed the West from project to project, and families did not weather that kind of life well. When it came to a choice, marriages often got the short end of the stick. “None of these people could quit; it’s in their blood,” says Jamie.

Cartographers a generation before set out in the spring with a string of horses and didn’t come back till fall.
 

The morning after Jim Hanchett’s cookout Jamie climbs into her yellow four-wheel-drive Chevy and rattles across the desert to the Coyote Butte quadrangle, an hour west of town. She will do supplemental control work—obtaining elevations and positions for points scattered throughout a quadrangle—from a nameless hill 3,346 feet above sea level. The hill, a pile of black volcanic rubble sticking out of the brown Idaho prairie, happens to be in the middle of the Idaho Army National Guard Firing Range, and a bullet-riddled sign at the entrance warns visitors not to pick up unexploded ammunition. As artillery rumbles around her, Jamie peers through a T-2 theodolite at another theodolite set up by Abe Trimble several miles away.

 

Abe Trimble and Joe Sadlik are criss-crossing Coyote Butte in their own pickups, setting up controls and getting elevations. Dust devils twist and writhe across the plains, and snow-patched mountains are visible far to the south. Army helicopters thump by; Coyote Butte itself, which Jamie has not been able to pick out until Abe signals by mirror from its summit, turns out to be a disappointing jumble of rocks seven miles away.

That little thing?” Jamie asks Abe over the radio. “I thought it would be a lot bigger.”

“I guess you have to be here to appreciate it,” says Abe.

Abe’s signal light looks like a flicker of brush fire through the hazy magnification of the T-2 scope. A theodolite is an instrument that—underneath the complicated optics and two-thousand-dollar price tag—essentially measures angles. If you point it from a hilltop to another location, it will tell you exactly what angle it must tilt at in order to see that spot. Then you take an instrument called a Microfix, which bounces microwaves off other Microfixes, to learn almost to the inch the distance between the two locations. Since you always work from a position of known elevation—called the turning point—simple geometry will calculate the elevation of the other point. Slowly, control after control, quadrangle after quadrangle, the U.S.G.S. has put together the fifty-five thousand maps that make up its 7½-minute-scale portrait of the United States.