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Trail’s End: Do I Look Flat In This? A Look Back to February 1967

Posted in Features on December 1, 2017
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Photographers: Four Wheeler Archives

Would your eyelid begin to twitch if you were asked to find a compass rose? Do the words “contour lines” drum up thoughts of a beauty product application? Does taking a bearing mean reaching for an assortment of friction-reducing balls? Newsflash: these words all have to do with reading maps—that’s right, paper maps.

The text on top of this ad found in the back of the February ’67 issue of Four Wheeler says, “Topographic Maps,” and gave readers an opportunity to purchase maps covering various rectangular sections of California at 75 cents apiece. Goodness how times have changed in the 50-plus years since this issue went to press. Some of us here at Four Wheeler remember a time when looking at a United States Geological Survey (USGS) quadrangle map was the only way to figure out where to point the 4x4 on the weekend.

We would peruse an unfamiliar corner of the map, hearts fluttering when the parallel lines turned from solid to hashed, indicating the end of pavement. On the paper before us, the earth appeared flat, but we knew the twisting contour lines meant the road would dive into deep canyons and climb up steep, rocky slopes. Before we even arrived at a trail we would do acrobatics in the driver seat, unfolding road maps close in size to a Thanksgiving tablecloth. With a map, we were never (admittedly) lost, but it appears those skills might be few and far between these days.

How do you find your way in the modern day? A glowing screen. Need the highway routes for a transcontinental road trip? Punch it into your GPS. Need a quick dirt road near the family vacation spot? Google it. Does the easy trail follow the right or left fork? There’s even an app for that. A task requiring a briefcase of paper maps 50 years ago can now be executed with the swipe of a thumb.

With all these glamorous navigation tools in our pockets and strapped to our dashboards, how is it that we still get lost? Perhaps one of the more terrifying sounds on the trails these days isn’t air escaping a torn tire or the crunch of a snapped axleshaft, but the words “lost satellite reception.” What happens when that county highway suddenly disappears from the screen? Could you use landmarks to figure out which craggy canyon trail leads you back to camp?

Navigation by map will never go out of style, and carrying one while wheeling could really get you out of a bind. Survival scenarios aside, we still find gems on our maps that are often overlooked by navigation systems. For those who dare to unfold them and decipher their cryptic clues, maps show old hiking and 4x4 trails, hidden lakes and hot springs, and historical treasures that might not make their way online.

We now ask you, intrepid Four Wheeler readers, has your survival ever depended on a crumpled paper map? What goodies have you found hiding between the contour lines? Drop us a few lines at editor@fourwheeler.com and tell us your tale!

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