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Navigating by Feeling the Topography

Do you suppose there are people in this racket (RVing) who aren't map/geography nerds? Anything is possible I suppose. At any rate, such a person would not like this post.

I had to drive from Quartzsite to Havasu to find a veterinarian to remove some infected cactus spines from my dog. The job was successful, so I was in a good mood driving home. Perhaps that had something to do with my sudden appreciation for the road design in that town.

Yes I know: it's not something that you think too much about, or would deem worthy to write about. But I tend to write about things that seem unusual; and enjoying the 'town planning' of any place is unusual, especially after disliking the road layout of Havasu in the past.

The road system was a grid of approximately orthogonal lines: one set of streets went roughly uphill, along the steepest gradient, away from the Colorado River. The orthogonal set of streets ran along isoclines, more or less, which eventually fell back down to the main highway.

Believe it or not, it was fun to drive through town, completely unaided by maps or GPS help, and 'feel' my way back to the main highway by looking at the topography. (It goes without saying that using GPS gadgets is only for the unmanly traveler.)

Now I understand why I had disliked Havasu in the past. A sailor or a midwestern landlubber thinks in terms of latitude and longitude, and any other type of grid seems barbaric and random to him. But Havasu's grid isn't random: it was laid out relative a noticeable ramp away from the Colorado River and towards the mountains in the east.

Many 'old towns' were laid out parallel/perpendicular to the river which created the town in the first place. In such a place, you would only confuse each other giving directions in terms of north, south...  

Rather, you say "away" from the river or towards it; upstream or downstream.

When I was a young navigator there was a small town nearby whose streets were cock-eyed. I didn't see how anybody could live in such a place. But once again, the street design was set up with respect to the 45 degree railroad track that founded the town back in the 1800's.

Even the longitude/latitude thinking of the sailor/midwesterner is 'topographically' based. It's just that there is no topography there except the shape of the globe and its spinning.

Long-term camping near Quartzsite.

This line of thinking hits paydirt -- literally -- when getting perplexed by the plexus of ATV trails that lead from my trailer door, into the surrounding lunar-scape of Quartzsite. The layout seems random at first, and I haven't been able to repeat a circumnavigation around Dome Rock without getting 'lost.' But I love getting lost on my mountain bike, with trails and trails...

...steering by insinuating my body into the canyons and saddles between the lunar mountains; and looking for a gap, a passage. I wouldn't take a map along if you paid me.

A philosopher would say, 'All topography is in one of two categories: convex or concave.'  Then he would yawn or sigh something like, 'All is vanity...'

But a human animal, who wants to survive, looks at the individualities of terrain. He cares for distinguishable differences, not commonalities or broad categories. Thus the land stays interesting to him for a long time.

If you'd like, you can crawl on top of this sturdy mine-shaft-guard, look down the vertical shaft with a flashlight, and drop a pebble in. Not me!


Ed said…
"Many 'old towns' were laid out parallel/perpendicular to the river which created the town in the first place."

When you were in Dolores, CO did you see anything of the town other than the library where you were using your WIFI straw?

Highway 145 follows the Rio Grande Southern Railroad roadbed through town. The street north of 145 is named Center Street although everyone would consider 145 to be the Center. The street north of that, at the base of the mountains, is named Hillside with the street south of 145 named Riverside.

Very little grid involved with topography dictating where the roads would be and to some extent provided the street names.
Yes, I remember the street grid in Dolores being set up along/perpendicular to the river.
The Polynesians were amazing navigators. Using no instruments or maps, observing only the ocean and stars, they could arrive at their destination a thousand miles away.
The color of the sky, the shape of the clouds, the direction of the swells, the presence of sea birds. Amazing.
Truly a lost art.
I wonder HOW they did it! Didn't they also look out on the horizon early in the day, and steer toward the first puff of cloud, which usually forms over the next island?
Jackpineseed said…
Blast from the Past! Morrissett would crawl out on that mine-shaft-guard and stare into the abyss!

'Long-term camping near Quartzsite'. I sure hope that's not the fate of me and my 'Magical Avion'! ( We've both got a few years and miles on us! ;)
Yes, I thought of adding that iconic photograph of toSimplify staring into the abyss!