Mapmaking sounded so important to me. It seemed crazy that there were so few people paying attention. It was only a couple of years after I finished college that someone finally mapped the full ocean. That said, you couldn’t trust that map. Too many areas made it look like nothing was there. Those holes usually meant military or corporate waste, but they also held other secrets. And you could still talk to the people that lived there. Some friends told me once that a fuzzy patch near Honduras used to be a gorgeous spot for divers called the Great Blue Hole. Something beautiful, and it should have been too big to hide.
People mostly followed unspoken rules and kept quiet. Sure, some directly challenged rules set in stone, but an unspoken rule feels almost taboo. I loved the thrill that came with that taboo. And the more I learned about cartography, the easier it was to see the influence of power on the shape of the land. It made me less wary and more curious about our maps today. As power structures changed, our maps did too, in line with socially accepted guidelines. Our past was dynamic, but for some reason, we accepted maps as concrete facts.
The process we used back then, to find a lost landmark, was simple.
First, I found a story or image that defined the place. Sometimes these initial clues included something about the climate or the country where the landmark was initially. There were sometimes hints about when that image or story was first recorded.
Next, we referred to a map. The most accurate maps are still physical, not digital. Digital maps are too malleable. Governments showed us over time we couldn’t trust them with maps. Country names, city names, and boundaries all changed constantly. Digital maps were necessary for travel, but they didn’t help with investigative work.
So, we had to spend a few years gathering maps. I had my dad’s collection and his dad had one too, so I had a good base to start with.
Any maps needed to relate to what we were searching for. For example, a map of the United States was useless for me unless it included topography or climate. Road maps helped, but only if they were from the 20th century.
Then, once we had a good map collection, I created transparencies to scale. Acetate worked best. I used vellum if I had to. Tracing paper was a bad idea because it got brittle and yellow over time. We wanted to be able to use our transparencies for a couple of years at least, otherwise it was too tempting to use our actual maps and we didn’t want to damage them.
The first map in my personal collection was a gift from my Uncle Matthew. It was a 1998 road atlas of the American South. He left it with my Aunt Sue, and she gave it to me when I was 18. I should have been mature enough to respect the power of that gift, but I was busy and young, and I left the atlas on the floor of my pickup for what I thought was a couple of weeks, along with some leftover fast food. When I finally cleaned out my truck, something had rotted a clean hole through the first 15 pages of my atlas. I felt horrible about damaging something so precious, and then I became obsessed with finding maps that would fill those holes. I was desperate to solve the mystery they created. That panic helped me come up with some of the layering techniques I use today.
Once we had our collection of transparent maps and our initial evidence, we created a layered map. This gave us a sense of where the landmark was at a distinct point in history and where it could be when we went looking for it. I’d put a sheet of heavy acetate, point .020, on top of two to three maps. I usually picked two physical maps and a printout of one digital map. At least one map had to have topography. Then I used a dry erase marker to emphasize the most helpful overlaps. Roads and waterways that still existed, elevations.
I also did a rough sketch of where a wall would need to be to conceal the landmark. There used to be set parameters for wall placement and construction, but after a while but parameters changed by personal preference, just like governments do.
After I had an approximate location mapped, I reached out to trusted sources about the location. Sometimes there were people living nearby. We forget all the ways that we become inured to our world. It’s amazing how many people live beside one of the wonders of the world and have no clue.
It was important to ask careful and sensitive questions. To not alarm or exploit. An inexperienced searcher at a fresh site could cause a lot of damage. We asked questions about popular hiking trails, old community stories, and urban legends in the area. There was usually at least one person who hadn’t forgotten.
Once we had low-level verbal confirmation, it was time for a site visit. This took all the preparation of any long backpacking trip. We never knew know how long we would be gone, what we would find, or how to prepare. So, we got ready for anything and packed light. This ridiculous contradiction was why I made so many lists.
We prioritized climate when packing. There’s nothing worse than multiple days of wet moldy feet. Hypothermia sucked hard, and so did dehydration. I always packed a journal. Pictures never did a visit justice. Once we found a target it’s not like we could take it with us.
After a trip I didn’t add my maps to public servers. Some searchers did, but they were usually removed from public access within days. Sometimes I thought it was because those in power wanted to keep things the way they were. Other times I wondered if they’d forgotten too, and they thought the servers were conspiracies or fantasies. I was sometimes asked to share my maps with think tanks and government offices, and they’d bring me in to present and explain my research and visualizations. I was lucky to have some rational outlet and income for my passions.
We didn’t search for some greater good. We did it as a reminder of our humanity. We did it to remember our infinite capacity for wonder. That nothing is ever really lost.