Mapping the backroads of the U.S.

2y ago


Dateland, Bagdad, Young, Fredonia, Salton Sea, Salome, Wikieup, and Nothing, AZ. These are just a few of the places I called home while mapping the southwestern United States.

I’d live out of a tent and my truck. If we were lucky, we’d stay in a forest service cabin which was generally just a double wide mobile trailer. Getting up each morning to put on either motorcycle gear or jeans and a cowboy hat depending on the type of mapping for that day.

These were long days. We’d be out in the “work area” by 8am to start catching some trails. How early we got moving depended on whether the work area was 15 minutes or over an hour away. There were days we road through some of the best trails around to get to the work area with giant smiles on our faces. Hitting jumps on the way to the first trail. There were also days we were huddled over our motorcycles driving down a straight paved road in below freezing temps. Alternating our hands onto the case of the engine just to keep them warm enough to move.

It was a great and terrible job, but looking back you forget the rough times and the minimal money. You just remember the sights, the adventure and the guys who you became best friends with.
In fact, one of those friends got "ordained" just so he could marry my wife and I.

The first job I showed up at was for the Arizona Strip. Would you believe it’s actually really hard to find people to do this work? It’s not hard to get people to SAY they want to do this work or even show up for a weekend, but it’s almost impossible to find people to do it and do it well week after week without a break.

You’re not cruising along offroading. You are sometimes stopping every 10 feet to log in yet another cattle guard, or water tank, or rare plant the Government wants recorded, or a game trail, or a side trail etc etc. It can be very tedious. Also, many of these trails have been logged in previously so you don’t want to double record. That means that via looking at GPS and paper maps you need to calculate your position within feet. We tried to start and stop mapping EXACTLY where it was needed as a point of pride and accuracy. Staring at a map with a ruler is not what people picture us doing, but it's how we spent a fair part of the day.

First home: A Kanab, Utah trailer park called the "Crazy Horse."

Luxury living at it's finest.

Getting home late each night meant some night time vehicle maintenance before doing it all again.

We all stay in contact via HAM "Amatuer" licensed radios (2 meter or 70cm frequencies). It’s nice to reach out and check in with a teammate even if they are 50 or so miles away.

This is Buck, the truck. Dennis owned him and was teaching me how to do this job before I would head out on my own.

A lot of these trails are so faint that you have to squat down and just look for 2 tracks via the slightly different height of the brush and plants growing. Others are easy to see, but were left for us "Contractors" because the local Forest Service or BLM office deemed them too dangerous for their staff to drive.

The best part about this job is that you aren’t driving roads that are in any book or even on most maps. They are just there. Created by a rancher or a miner a long time ago. Mostly forgotten except by a few wandering souls. I still love finding these roads.

Sure, I love the MUST SEE named trails that are in 4x4 books or websites, but these roads are still where I feel at home. You never know what you’re going to discover.

We’ve found old mining shacks still stocked with canned food and clothing, we’ve found springs and waterfalls, we’ve come across human bones, we’ve found connecting roads from one part of the state to another. Heck, one time we even found a toilet cemented to the top of a hill with a great view in all directions that made absolutely no sense, but that’s a story for another day.

You could go nuts with photos doing this job, but once you settle in you set the camera down and just enjoy life. You keep the sights and sounds for yourself and no one else. By the end of the 10 plus hour day you are exhausted. Exhausted from staring at maps that are generally 4 feet by 4 feet. (Many of them because they are in great detail) You’re tired from walking ahead to see if the trail continues. You’re tired from bouncing along a dirt road. You’re tired, but you’re happy and satisfied.

Some of these trails would end right on a hill. We all got very good and backing down and UP hills. You can’t always turn around.

A big factor with this work was vehicle reliability and maintenance. When you are offroading 10 hours a day, every day you break things that no one else does. I often recommend trucks without the electronically engaging 4wd. Sometimes, the foremost offroader in a group will say “I offroad the most of anyone I know and I’ve never broken it. So it’s fine.” I’m sure that’s true, but after a month of doing this work we’d break things that you’d never even think about wearing out. And then again, and again and again.

Keep It Simple Stupid, became the model for our trucks. Anything not needed was discarded and anything temperamental or electronic was replaced with a manual or mechanical alternative.

On our day off we could get to places others dreamed of going. A quick stop at the Grand Canyon, sure why not.

It seems like a dream job, I get that. In some ways, it was. Stopping into check on your home in town once a month, pay bills and read mail, do vehicle maintenance and head back out made for a busy life. Still, I wouldn't trade these times for anything... Next installment we head to a new "work" area in need of mapping.