Getting Lost… Or Better yet, Not


“Now Bilbo, my boy,  fetch a lamp, and let’s have a little light on this!” On the table in the light of a big lamp with a red shade he spread a piece of parchment rather like a map… ‘Five feet high the door and three may walk abreast’ say the runes, but Smaug could not creep into a hole that size, not even when he was a young dragon, certainly not after devouring so many of the dwarves and men of Dale… “It seems a great big hole to me,” squeaked Bilbo (who had no experience of dragons and only of hobbit-holes). He was getting excited and interested again, so that he forgot to keep his mouth shut. He loved maps, and in his hall there hung a large one of the Country Round with all his favorite walks marked on it in red ink. – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

This morning I was reading Scott’s blog over at Cutthroat Stalker titled “A New Season’s Topography”. In it he waxes eloquent about the  “possibilities and anticipation” of getting out a map and tracing routes to spring fly fishing spots along its lines. I could really relate to what he was saying. I love looking at maps and dreaming of the places I might go.

Bilbo the hobbit liked to stay at home and to be thought “respectable” by his neighbors, but nothing draws out from the soul the excitement and desire for adventure like a good map and so began his epic journey into the unknown.


Starting from any single point on a map the possibilities are endless – head north, south, east, west, or anywhere in between – follow a stream, a shoreline, a road, or a trail – follow a solid black line from town to town or wander through pathless expanses of green and brown guided by no more than a compass needle. Is the route you trace a familiar one like one of Bilbo’s favorite walks on the map in his hallway where each step is like a beloved old friend? Is it wild and new with sights you’ve never seen before and simply anything could happen?

You have to use your imagination with maps. This is the very best part about them. The description is there, but not the experience.  A map tells you where the rivers and the mountains are and shows you what is in between, but it leaves the rest to you. Its colors, lines, and symbols tantalizingly hint at something deeper and it draws you in and on. You imagine yourself moving along the route as you trace it out.


What color is the water in that stream? Is it clear and cold or is it rich and brown and rolling? Are there fish to be caught? How does the world look from the top of that mountain? Does all the land lay spread out in a wide panorama under a high clear dome of blue sky or is it all wet and misty overhung with rolling grey clouds? Do deer bound through that woods over there? Can you smell the resinous pine trees along that ridge on a hot summer’s day?

I’ve been wandering through the forest and fields since I was a kid so I’ve developed a pretty good sense of direction. A lot of it comes from just being aware of my surroundings as I walk. Of course on a sunny day figuring out the compass points is pretty easy. When the sky is overcast it is a little trickier and close attention has to be paid to the “lay of the land” and keeping track of landmarks. I never bother with a map in familiar areas.

On the other hand, I always study my maps before heading into a new area and I make sure to take them with me (as well as a good compass). Topographical maps from the US Geological Survey are the best thing since sliced bread. It almost makes it worth paying my taxes each year to support this resource. Natural Resources Canada provides topographical maps for you folks north of the border and I expect most nations around the world provide a similar service. These maps have been helping me find my destination for many years and have saved my butt from getting lost many a time. When you are alone in the forest miles from any sort of civilization, you don’t want to be relying on some little trail map in a brochure that you got from the park entrance gate, you want one of these babies.


Hey, a GPS device might be OK for getting from point A to point B following the same old route as everybody else, but where is the adventure in that? Where is the romance? Where is the self-reliance? Where is the imagination? Next time you’re heading out in the car or on foot, leave the electronics at home. Get yourself a good printed on a piece of paper map and a nice low tech compass and have yourself an adventure.



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6 Responses to “Getting Lost… Or Better yet, Not”

  1. Cutthroat Stalker (Scott) Says:

    It looks like you have your mojo back! I’ve been like you the last couple of months and have felt listless with no desire to write or take pictures. I think I feel it coming back though. I love these shots, especially the one with two rocks and all of that “empty” space. Again, the idea of “possibilities” with so much canvas showing.

    I’m with you on the USGS maps. As a teenager, one of my “art” pieces on the wall was a topo map of our local mountains (though it was in a place of slightly less prominence than the Farah Fawcett poster). With all of the mountains surrounding us, and the lack of heavy forests, I rarely have the need of a map or GPS.

    • forestrat Says:


      I took these at a place called Chimney Bluffs along the shore of Lake Ontario. As you can see the soil here is very easily eroded and these sharp edged spires form – kinda looks like the surface of Mars or something. If you sit quietly you can here the erosion taking place as wind and rain and sun dislodge small bits and send them skittering down the slopes.

      Farah Fawcett, eh? Woo Woo.


      • Cutthroat Stalker (Scott) Says:

        Lake Ontario? Who would have thought? I had no idea such a place existed (Chimney Rock, that is). It does look like very loose material. Some kind of sand/rock conglomerate? Your shots certainly help give it that “otherworldly” feel.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    Beautiful photos, and true thoughts on rambling the countryside…

    You’re making me want to get out there!


  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    So few elements, such simplicity to make these stunning photos.Like Cutthroat, I really like that second one. Very peaceful. I like the way it defies the norms of composition with the line going straight across – the two stones up front are so strong, one’s eye doesn’t even notice the horizon until later and it’s so far back, it can’t compete with the two rocks.
    It’s curious. And it works.
    My dad was a land surveyor and eventually he worked in photogrammetry. He collected maps for his professional work and I have them all – and don’t quite know what to do with them so they sit there until I have time.
    I love maps for their visual beauty.
    Happy trails,

  4. forestrat Says:

    I was thinking about the practical uses of maps and forgot about the pure visual aspect.

    Sometimes the precise detail of a map stands out and sometimes it’s the colors and patterns. Hand drawn maps can be very unique and “arty”.

    After our trip to Costa Rica, I framed one of the maps we used for finding our way around and hung it in the dining room.


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