Map and compass

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(HOST) When you’re hiking off the beaten track, there are lots of ways to figure out where you are, but commentator Alan Boye says that knowing where you are is sometimes less important than simply being there.

(BOYE) I’m fiddling with my compass as I climb up a hill through a hay field. Even though I spend a good deal of my time just walking these Vermont hills, I never use a fancy GPS device, but prefer just a compass and a good map to find my way around.

Near the top edge of the open field I turn to look around. Far below me I can see the church steeple in the tiny village of Lower Waterford, Vermont. Beyond it the Connecticut valley cuts a deep wide path through the dark green mountains.

I look at the pretty view for no more than an instant, before I turn my attention to my topographical map. I turn it this way and that until the map lines up perfectly with the view before me; then I study it, drawing imaginary lines from the spot where I stand to distant landforms. I find Chamberlin Mountain and Albee Hill. I spy a dark cleft on a distant hill and find it on the map. It’s called Bill Little Brook. Then I discover the mouth of Carter Creek as it spills into the wide Connecticut River below me.

I study the map to figure out the best way up the hill behind me.
I turn my back on the valley and step into the woods. Every dozen steps or so, I take out the compass to mark my direction of travel. According to the map, if I keep walking on this bearing I should come to the shoulder of a hill. If I head due north from there I should come across the trace of an old road.

As I walk, I keep squinting through the trees. I want to locate every single landmark so that I can try to find them on my map. I sight on farmhouses and open fields, on fencelines and tiny creeks, and then stop and spend long moments trying to locate my precise position on the crumpled lines of the map.

I stumble on the remains of an ancient and massive stone wall.
I hadn’t seen the dark rocks in the tall weeds ahead of me and I nearly trip over the stones before I catch myself. I look at the old wall, then at my map, then back at the dark tumble of stones. The wall looks as if it has been here since time began and I can find no trace of it on my map.

I stuff the map into my pocket, and ignore my compass. I stand silently. New birds – just returned from the distant southlands – sing in the high branches of trees. Above me is the deepening
blue dome of a cloudless spring sky. I stand like a man coming full awake from the depths of a complicated dream.

Alan Boye teaches at Lyndon State College.

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