You say you love your GPS device? I hate the damned thing.

When I was twelve years old I was sent to nature camp for a week. This isn’t a horror story, because it wasn’t a bad experience. I didn’t get beat up, I didn’t get homesick, I didn’t find a snake in my sleeping bag, I didn’t get poison ivy, I didn’t suffer the indignity of seeing my underpants flying from the camp’s flagpole. I did almost step on a copperhead (my pal Billy threw an arm across my chest to stop me just in the nick of time) and I did discover how much I hate wolf spiders. But nature camp was an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Best of all, I fell in love. Not with one of my schoolmates (although I did go to camp with some really cute girls), but with orienteering. The coolest thing I learned in camp, and it’s something which I still use often today, was how to find my way by using a map and compass. Plop me down at a battlefield landmark, give me a target destination, a map, a compass, and a partner or two with whom to work (pencil and ruler appreciated, but optional), and I will get you to within a few feet of the target, guaranteed.

When I was 12 and at nature camp, they dropped all of us kids off in the middle of nowhere and divided us into several small teams. For some unfathomable reason the instructors made me a team leader. They spent ten minutes showing us how to find our way using a map and compass (and by the latter I mean a map compass, with a base plate and rotating dial, not some crappy toy compass or one of those useless suction cup ball compasses that elderly people stick to their windshield right above their cheap plastic dashboard Jesus). Ten minutes of instruction and we were to set out on our own, with teams going out at five minute intervals. If we did it right, we would come out at the dead center of a side of the fence around the camp’s swimming pool. “Do it right or you’ll get lost,” they told us. Getting lost meant at best missing dinner, and at worst (in our twelve year old minds) being eaten by bears or wolves.

Do it right or suffer the consequences.

I’ll admit it — I was nervous. I was twelve years old, a good student but not especially athletic (which, at that time, meant I got picked on a lot and had pretty close to zero self-esteem), not particularly outstanding at anything. And here I was, a team leader. In an orienteering exercise. Expected to use a skill which was brand new to me. In a forest. On a mountain. Far from home. It meant that I was responsible. If I or any of my teammates got lost (and/or devoured by a bear), it would be my fault.

“Um, sir…,” I kind of stammered, “I really don’t want to do this. Can I at least not be the leader?” Hey, c’mon, I was twelve.

The instructor crouched down and put a hand on my shoulder. “Were you listening to the instructions? Did you understand them?”

“I think so…”

He looked me square in the eye. “Then you can do this. Find the bearing, pick a waypoint, get a teammate to stand by it, walk to it, find another waypoint. You can do this.” Emphasis on the “you”.

I took a deep breath. I walked back to my team. My team. “We’re gonna get closer to the pool than anybody else,” I said with a determination that I wasn’t sure I actually felt.

Our turn came and we set out, bushwacking through the forest. It wasn’t that far to our destination, probably between a half-mile and a mile, but it felt like a hundred of ‘em. Just far enough to spook a kid. But I used my compass as instructed, took careful note of the bearings, picked our waypoints. “Julie, go out to that tree. No, farther back – the one with all the moss on it. OK, stop! Everybody, walk over to Julie!” If there wasn’t a natural waypoint available along the right heading, we made one. “Billy, see that big rock out there? Go out and stand to the left of it. OK, turn around! Take three big steps to your right – stop! Everybody, walk out to Billy!”

We could hear (but not see) other teams around us in the woods, arguing and yelling, some of the kids panicking, freaking out, fighting over the compass. But our team was having a ball. Orienteering was fun!

And, just like in the movies, we pulled together as a team and we did it. We missed the target, the dead center of the fence around the pool, by less than ten feet. Every other team missed the whole pool completely. The instructors even had to send searchers out for one of the teams (I overheard the instructors talking about sending my team out to search: “That kid knows what he’s doing.” It was a real kick).

I was pretty damn proud of our team, and of myself. I don’t remember what we won; it wasn’t a big deal, something next to nothing. But we thought it was pretty cool because we’d earned it. I’m only half joking when I say it was like something from the movies, and let me tell you – it was a pretty big deal for a little kid. It’s still a big deal, because it was the first time (but not the last) that I had to learn something quickly and figure it out on the fly. It was a great life lesson.

And I’ve loved orienteering ever since. Sure I own a handheld GPS unit, and I’ve geocached a few times. But nothing beats a map and compass. I’ve hiked all over plenty of Civil War battlefields (a few of them unmarked or just sketchily interpreted) and I can use a map really, really well. I can read firsthand battle accounts that mention some relatively minor geographic feature, get close to it by using a topographic map, and then find the exact rock or fold of ground by eyeballing the terrain from there. That was my main hobby a decade ago: head for a battlefield with a stack of source material in my backpack, then do the fieldwork using a map and compass. I learned volumes that I’d never have learned just by reading, and met a lot of really cool people along the way (plus, ultimately, became a Civil War historian for South Mountain Battlefield for a couple of years). I don’t mean to brag here, but I am pretty good at map work. I just plain love the damned things.

I’m not alone. My twins had an orienteering challenge in a school class several years ago; half the students used a GPS unit for navigation and the other half used a map and compass. The GPS kids got hopelessly lost. My boys were in the map and compass group and, like a chip off the old blockhead, completely nailed it and hit the target perfectly. To this day, they swear by paper maps and completely eschew GPS. My son Cody has said many a time, “I’ll take a map and compass over GPS any day.”

When I was working on South Mountain, every day I would hear multiple visitors say, “My GPS got me lost on my way up here.” I’d ask, “Didn’t you have a map?” and at least half the time they’d look at me like I had a mimosa tree growing out of my ear. “A map? Nobody uses those anymore! Why would I want one of those?” And I’d just grin at them. The smarter ones would break out in a grin of their own and say, “I see what you did there.” The dumb ones would just act like I was the dumb one. Ooooookay…

Seriously, friend, everyone should know how to read at least a gas station highway map. And, I’ll tell you true, if you engage in any outdoor activities or have any interest in history, you’ll get soooooooo much more out of these hobbies if you learn to read a topographic map. You don’t need to be able to interpret contour lines to picture a hill or valley in your mind with 100% accuracy (very few people can, truth be known), but just knowing the basics (like the closer the lines the steeper the grade, for example) can be handy at worst and life-saving at best. GPS can tell you exactly where you are on the earth’s surface, but it can’t guide you to some other unique discreet point the way a map and compass can — plus a map can show you exactly what to expect along the way.

Additionally, maps can be beautiful works of art. I encourage you to check out the work of my favorite cartographer (yes, I’m such a map freak that I have a favorite cartographer), Jedediah Hotchkiss, who was the mapmaker for General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (and others) during the American Civil War. Many of Hotchkiss’ maps are so accurate that many of them can still be used today, and here’s the mindblower: he worked from horseback without the benefit of aerial observation and other modern cartographic techniques. You can find almost the complete corpus of Hotchkiss work at the Library of Congress website.

All of which is mere preamble to today’s single comic book page. Just the other day, The Digital Comic Museum uploaded an old Fox Features comic, a one-shot from 1951 called Rocket Ship X:

Rocket Ship X, 1951

The book’s cover and title made my downloading of it a forgone conclusion, but upon perusing it I was delighted to see within its covers a page devoted to the technique of reading a topographic map. The really wild part about this page is that it’s actually better than many similar pages I’ve seen in orienteering books and manuals – the “comparison” illustrations showing the real-life features next to the cartographic symbology serve to make the symbols crystal-clear and, conversely, to help a map reader visualize what the symbolic representation might look like on the ground. It’s very nicely done. And, as the G.I. says at the top of the page (without any trace of hyperbole, either), knowing how to properly read a map truly could potentially save your life one day.

Seriously. I’d hate to hear that you’d been eaten by a wolf or bear.

To our veterans: Happy Veterans Day to you guys and gals! (Especially those who, like my folks, served in WWII or helped the war effort on the home front.) I’ll always appreciate you.

Rocket Ship X, September 1951

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.