The Lost Art Of Dreaming Over Maps

I was talking to my friend Mark about mountain biking a while back when he mentioned linking together a bunch of shorter trails around the town of Golden: You start at my office, go up South Table Mountain, over to North Table Mountain, up Chimney Gulch and the Lookout Mountain trails, and then over to Apex and back to the office.

Here are two things I like about Mark: 1) he does this 25-mile ride ride over lunch and 2) he puts ideas like this together often.

Compared to Mark, I am a pretty vanilla mountain cyclist. I hear about a trail, or someone suggests one, I go ride it, and I’m done. But when he told me about his lunch ride, I had the feeling of “Why didn’t I think of [something like] that?” People say Ride X, Ride Y, and Ride Z are good, so I go do them, and that’s mountain biking. Where’s the adventure in that?

Mark and I have talked about plenty of his missions, failed and successful, all starting with a map, a friend or several, and the question “What if ________?” And every time I think of him, I think, I need to do more of what Mark does.

When we think about what to do with our weekends, we have a bajillion guidebooks, online resources, and magazine lists to give us ideas. What I lose track of in that sea of potential tick list items, and maybe you do too, is my own ideas. Which are sometimes very dumb, but are mine just the same. And all of them come from paper maps, and running a finger along a ridge, or eyeballing the distance over the top of a mountain range, or a succession of trails, and asking, “I wonder if I could _____?” and then brainstorming which of my friends might do it with me.

The era of exploration is largely over. The highest peaks have been climbed, the South Pole has been reached by almost every human-powered means possible, and all that’s really left for true exploring for the sake of exploration is caving, the ocean, and space. None of us are probably going to find the next deepest-ever cave or find a new species at the bottom of the ocean, but we can head out on a Saturday on a mission that has a low chance of success, or a high chance of getting us lost somewhere, instead of just following the metaphorical road more traveled.

I’ve tried to come up with a few original (to me) trip ideas in the past couple years, and have drawn inspiration from a couple people who are not climbing the hardest or riding the fastest, but are in my mind adventuring the best, because they’re following their noses and dreaming up human-powered fun in known regions.

  • Forrest McCarthy is an Exum guide, and has been brainstorming adventures for two decades. He just posted a scan of an article he wrote for Jackson Hole Skier magazine in 1994, after completing a 200-mile, unsupported, solo ski traverse from Lander to Jackson, over the Wind River and Gros Ventre mountains, hauling his gear behind him on a sled.
  • You may have heard of Alastair Humphreys, the author and National Geographic Adventurer of the year who bicycled 46,000 miles around the world over the span of four years, and walked across India, and most recently, coined the term “microadventure” to describe “an adventure that is close to home, cheap, simple, short, and yet very effective.” Which he explains in his new book, Microadventures.
  • I first heard about Luc Mehl through my friend Jim after they flew to Mexico City, picked up crappy old mountain bikes, rode them to Pico de Orizaba, climbed to the summit in running shoes, rode the bikes 11,000 feet down to a river, and then packrafted it out to the ocean. His concept of “adventure as art” doesn’t seem to take into account anything other people might be doing—only what might be possible with a bunch of sturdy friends and gear.


26 replies on “The Lost Art Of Dreaming Over Maps

  • Lilace Guignard

    This reminds me of how Doug Peacock in his book Grizzly Years describes pulling out a map of Wyoming backcountry when in ‘Nam. How he’d lose himself in the sanity of those familiar wild spaces.

  • ~d*g

    I often break out my maps and spread them across the living room floor to come up with trips off the beaten path. Once my wife came across me doing it in the fading light of the evening (I was too absorbed to get up and turn on a light) and said to me “stop map-sturbating in the dark or you’ll go blind.”

  • Greg

    Not really sure why you call this a lost art. Basically every person I know who plays outside dreams up their adventures on maps and goes to see what happens.

    • anon

      +1. my previous apartment had a wall covered in maps: the two giant-side ones that were the local regional park district. now it’s mostly just time on the living room floor with maps.

  • Steve

    I’ve got a big map of Grand Teton NP hanging on the back of my office door. (I wish I had that awesome 3D map from the visitor center in your pic). On days when I’ve had enough, I just close the door and stare at the map for a while for some peace and inspiration.

  • Kircher

    That Golden trail link-up is called the pickle run. The key is using Golden City Brewery as the central hub.

  • Pitt

    Your philosopy has been the basis for an annual adventure that my friends and I have coined “Manventure”. They are never repeated but always remembered. Always making sure that we do something that will make people laugh and scoff when I tell them what i did over the weekend. I will tell you more about some of our great ideas when I see you next. Thanks for the article dude. Really great!

  • Jenny Johnston

    Our family is on a trip RIGHT THIS MINUTE that we mapped out and have dreamed about for years. We are biking 800 miles in British Columbia. Our two girls are on trail a bikes attached to our bikes. We are on day 3, 80 miles completely….I have managed to lose the directions for the entire trip, thankfully I found them 12 hours later…..our panniers are filled with maps of Vancouver Island (where we are now). nothing makes me as happy as a map….adventures await…..thank goodness for public libraries! I can still update my blog, and read my weekly semi rad!!

  • Scott Morris

    Well said. Especially in mountain biking, it sure seems like people sure lack creativity when it comes to routes. One who commented above does not — check out Justin!’s self-powered 14er challenge:

    I still can’t believe that, as long as bikepacking has been around, no one has tried to ride the Continental Divide Trail yet. People need to get out more. 😉

  • Beth

    I learned to read maps pouring over Delorme’s Washington Gazetteer with my dad. It was a wonderful bonding experience as he told me stories of places he’d been and I dreamed of all the places I’d go.

    Years later, I think I got a second date with my husband because the walls of my apartment were covered with maps. There have been so many good times as a result of map browsing in the subsequent years but also lots of good times just spent looking at maps.

  • Oliver

    Most poetic title again and quite some food for thought. I think we may need a definition for most things we do or some sort of category or label. It also might be a question of direction or purpose or something. So I appreciate the idea to leave this trail and seek some seemingly nondescript adventures…

  • Daniel

    It’s like our outdoor adventure word has turned into a theme park sometimes; follow the path, stay in line, take a photo of this… Your right too much information and how-to’s.
    Thinking back, maybe that was a sign I had grown up; when my Ozzy posters were traded for Forest Service maps, who knew…..
    After starring at one of them map/models like the one pictured above at the N. Rim info center I followed one of them little lines on a map that led me to spend the last 3 days camping on the north edge of the Grand Canyon, amazing stuff. Would still be there if the water supply hadn’t of run low. Post coming soon-

  • Kristin

    Thanks for this! I’ve been feeling stuck in a “10 best” rut. IE: I have a list of 10 best hikes/climbs/peaks/whatever, and I do them over and over because I’m, frankly, a bit lazy. And kind of scared of getting lost, to be perfectly honest :p

  • Luc Mehl

    Thanks for the affirmation Brendan, that feels awesome.

    I think maps are actually kind of limiting. I’m addicted to Google Earth… the scale, 3D imagery, and Panoramio photos are hugely inspirational. We draw lines on Google Earth, email the sketch between the crew to edit, then load the route onto a GPS. Maps are largely an afterthought; I rip a page out of the gazetteer (1:300,000 scale) to take notes and have in case the Earth’s polarity flips.

  • Skylo

    On a grand scale, I had a empty wall in my livingroom. Decided to put a giant world map on it, its amazing to see how people are attracted to it when they come and visit.

  • Anders Dahl

    I’m old enough, that my early travels were done with outdated travel books and maps, no gps or internet. While I love the new tools, the think the biggest thing new “explorers” are missing is the human interactions. It’s mostly about doing something first, hardest or longest. But few seem to connect with the ingenious cultures, that are disappearing faster than any glaciers.

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