The Last Map Makers

The plan is, all the data will be stored digitally, and orbiting satellites will do much of the updating.

“I’ve worked on projects with the pony-express route too,” Phil says. “And I was at Wounded Knee after the Indians shot the FBI guy. Talk about tense. Another time we were warned away from the Mexican border because of all the drug trafficking. Maybe the most difficult state to work is Texas. You have to ask permission to cross someone’s land, and most of the people who say no live in Texas. They’re real paranoid of the government there.”

Two of the very last quads in the country to be mapped at 7½-minute scale are just south of Mountain Home in Elko, Nevada. Nevada is a rugged place, and it is somehow appropriate that it held out so long against the scrutiny of cartographers. Phil considers Nevada the easiest place in the country to work in; people in such isolation tend to cooperate with one another, he says. Indeed, it’s hard to stop on the highway for a photograph without having someone pull up behind you to ask if you need help.

The man in charge of the projject in Elko is a leathery-skinned veteran named Ben Rush. His temporary headquarters is crammed with the nearly immovable steel office furniture of the 1950s. Scattered over every flat surface are maps, land plats, and aerial photos. One map has hills cross-hatched in an old-fashioned style and is marked “Unsurveyed Lands.” In a corner sits an old wooden box containing an alidade, an instrument for drawing maps while in the field. Rush has been with the U.S.G.S. all his thirty-five working years. His eyes have squint lines, and he wears khaki issue from his neck to the tops of his shoes.

“Cartographers in the last generation before me would start out in the spring with a string of horses and mules and wouldn’t come back till fall,” he says. “They had a blank sheet of paper and an instrument called a plane table and would stay out all summer making their maps. In those days the men who did the field work had their names published at the bottom of the map.”

Rush saw the early days of the 7½-minute project and now has the satisfaction of putting the very end of it to bed. He says the last great advance in mapping was the introduction of aerial photography in World War H; the next great advance will be the Mark II or “Modernization” program—spy photos taken from satellites. “The powers that be think that they don’t need field workers. Well, I may be a little partial, but in order to do it properly, someone’s going to have to do a little field work. I like to see advances, but I don’t like to see us eliminated.”

One of the tasks facing Rush is updating something called the land net. The land net is a pioneer-era grid of stone and brass markers across much of the West that divide the land into one-mile sections. Some markers that have been destroyed by new roads are called accepted corners and are shown by an X on the new map. They are abstractions, known points that exist only in the minds of the field workers. As such their value is mainly historical, but they also provide a metaphor for the future of the field workers themselves.

SEPTEMBER 1991: For more than forty years the U.S.G.S. was absorbed in the monumental task of mapping the entire country at 7½-minute scale. Now the job is done. The field workers I visited two summers back finished their corner of Idaho not long after, and five of them now sit at desks full-time in a U.S.G.S. office in Denver, two permanently and three awaiting future assignments doing revisions in the field. Ben Rush has retired and lives in Nevada; those who have stayed on are preparing to hover over the high-tech cartography of the future like phantom section corners over a new road, the only blank spot on a map they themselves helped draw.