October 20, 2004

They're All Over the Map

The Auto Club's intrepid cartographers traverse the rural Southwest cataloging the uncharted features of a changing landscape.

John O'Dell
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

VIRGIN MOUNTAINS, Ariz. — Shane Henry steered his truck along a dusty road, emerging from a steep, cool pine forest and dead-ending on the edge of a precipice. The uncharted spot provided a breathtaking, 30-mile-wide panoramic view of the Virgin River Gorge, stretching northeast into Utah.

For Henry, a field cartographer for the Automobile Club of Southern California, it was a great day of discovery. After finding the overlook, he spotted ruins of a forgotten century-old cattle ranch near a pair of freshwater springs. Between overlook and ruins, he had also found 10 miles of a drivable dirt road. None are on the Auto Club's current "Indian Country" road map, but all his finds will be on a new version due out in two years.

Despite the popularity of Global Positioning System navigation and earth-blanketing satellite photography, there are still places few have seen and roads few have traveled. Henry and his senior road-mapping colleague, John Skinner, are helping to find them.

The duo of Skinner and Henry doesn't have the same poetic ring as Lewis and Clark. But 200 years after the famous explorers began their mapping trip through the American West, Skinner and Henry are doing much the same work, traveling the rugged backcountry of the Southwest, looking for something new.

The two explorers are a rarity in the modern world of mapmaking. Rand McNally Co. and the various AAA groups are the primary publishers of U.S. road maps. Most full-time field researchers work on roadways in urban and suburban areas.

Skinner and Henry "are probably the only ones in the U.S. doing what they do" with backcountry mapping, says Bill Scharf, head of the Auto Club's cartography division. The Los Angeles-based club publishes 90 different maps and distributes 7 million road maps annually. It tries to update them every other year.

Every dirt road and trail shown on them will eventually be driven and rated by the Auto Club's field cartographers. But they rarely work together.

"There's too much work to do to team up," Skinner says.

They spend 10 months a year on the road, racking up about 60,000 miles each in four-wheel-drive trucks. The Auto Club provides the trucks, which are adorned with the club's logo and a banner: "Map Unit."

Their territory is vast. Skinner and Henry cover the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada, rural regions of 13 Southern California counties and all of Baja California. They also map the Four Corners area — a 130,000-square-mile region surrounding the point where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah all touch — which is included in the club's celebrated Indian Country map.

That map is a fixture in tourists' cars and ranchers' pickups alike. Its accuracy is why "everyone around here uses it," says Ed Chamberlin, curator of the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site museum on the Navajo Reservation in Ganado, Ariz.

Novelist Tony Hillerman, whose mysteries featuring Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn have brought the Four Corners region alive for millions of readers, has also made the map a key part of his fictional cop's crime-fighting arsenal.

Henry, 42, a former actor, has been on the job for three years; Skinner, 59, is a trained geographer who has been riding trail for the Auto Club for 22 years.

John Skinner reviews a map while working near Barstow. (John O’Dell / LAT)

Skinner quit in the '90s and moved to Arizona for three years in pursuit of a romance that ultimately failed. When the heartbreak healed, he asked for his old job back and hit the road again.

"This job is not good for relationships," says Skinner, who has been engaged three times but has never married.

Skinner and Henry work in trucks loaded with GPS navigation systems and highly detailed federal topographical maps to trace their tracks. Backseats and cargo areas are filled with piles of extra maps, cellphones, tents and food. They carry jacks, flares, survival kits, tire pumps, extra fuel lines, transmission oil and fan belts.

As they drive, Skinner and Henry continually check special odometers, accurate to within one-thousandth of a mile, to verify that the distances already listed on maps are precise. They also rate road conditions to ensure that routes haven't been washed out by flash floods or altered by construction. Their discoveries may include stone quarries, mines, washes, overlooks, abandoned towns and a dizzying variety of unpaved roads.

Dirt roads on AAA maps are rated from graded and gravel-topped thoroughfares to badly eroded and rutted tracks best suited for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.

"We want to make sure that if a mom in her Volvo decides to take one of these roads, she'll be able to make it," Henry says.

On the job, Skinner and Henry usually sleep in motels, not tents. Still, notes Denis Cosgrove, a cultural geography professor at UCLA, the two are throwbacks who resemble "the early topographers, trekking out into inaccessible places and trying to reduce a part of the world to a page on a map."

The job has its perils.

Skinner and Henry have had encounters with mountain lions and rattlesnakes. And they give wide berth to desert compounds littered with the glass vials and metal cooking pots that mark the illegal drug-making operations of modern outlaws.

The mapmakers say their work requires a big helping of self-confidence. Henry was on a rough dirt road in the mountains northwest of Lake Powell in Utah when he saw the road ahead disappearing between some rocks. Usually he would get out and walk the route to see where it went before proceeding, but it was late and he was tired, so he just drove on.

As Henry passed the curve it turned into a narrow, terrifying stretch made up of loose rock rubble with a 200-foot drop on one side. He kept going, in part because an Auto Club map indicated that the road led across the mountain summit.

But about 200 yards from the top he found himself trapped. The road's loose rock had turned into a series of 18-inch-high granite ledges.

"Those steps were just a little too high for my truck tires to roll over," Henry says.

He couldn't make a U-turn because the road was too narrow. One option was to back downhill, but he faced a mile-long path of scree with the long drop on one side. So he decided to keep going up. He exited the truck very carefully, so he wouldn't slip off the precipice, then gathered rocks to build a little ramp so he could drive over the step. Then every 30 feet or so he stopped because of another granite step and had to build a new ramp. It took Henry four hours to drive 200 yards.

"This is a good example of why we drive all these roads," he says. On the older map it showed as a rough but usable dirt road across the summit. "But it had deteriorated so badly it was impassable for most people, so I took it out" for the new map, he says.

Skinner and Henry can trace their jobs back to 1905, when AAA published its first road map and helped pioneer the industry at a time when motorists were few and marked roads fewer. In those days, maps were basically logbooks written to describe trips with descriptions of key geographic spots, gas stations, historic buildings, river bends, anything to guide drivers.

Later, auto clubs and other promoters invented names for roads and posted road signs for travelers to follow. But there was no uniformity. The same road could be called one name by a city, another by a real estate developer who had published his own map and something else by a local travel and touring club.

It wasn't until 1916, when Rand McNally started its own route numbering system, that travelers heading south from Boston to Florida could follow a route that retained the same name from state to state — as long as they used Rand McNally maps. Finally, in 1924, the federal government adopted a uniform numbering system so that major travel routes would retain their identities across the country.

Both Skinner and Henry took circuitous routes to land their current jobs.

Skinner was a ship navigator in the Navy, then earned a degree in geography from Cal State Fresno. He worked four years for a local AAA office as a tourist counselor, offering maps and advice on trips. When a job opened up as a field cartographer in 1979, he took it.

Shane Henry inspects a U.S. Geological Survey marker. (John O’Dell / LAT)

Henry grew up in rural Oregon and earned a master of fine arts degree in classical theater at the University of Alabama. He spent 15 years traveling the country as an actor and dancer in regional theaters. He met Skinner by chance when Skinner was on a mapping trip in Los Padres National Forest and was fixing a flat tire. Henry was out hiking and struck up a conversation. Skinner told him about an opening for another map researcher.

A typical day of mapping covers 30 to 50 miles of dirt roads.

On trips to Baja California and Indian Country, Skinner and Henry often travel for three weeks at time. But the Auto Club requires them to take off one day in seven.

"It can be a real pain when you are out in the middle of nowhere, and the only thing you can do with your day off is sit around a lonely motel or campsite," Henry says.

Although he and Skinner meet plenty of storekeepers, restaurant workers and travelers in their work, their return visits are so far apart that friendships rarely form.

"You do have to like to work by yourself," Henry says.

Yet of the 10 field cartographers the Southern California club has hired in the last 35 years, only one has quit for good to pursue a more normal lifestyle. That was Dan Goodwin, now a 44-year-old environmental health and safety manager for a manufacturer in Pasadena.

In 1986, with a newly minted geography degree from UC Santa Barbara, Goodwin thought the job would be perfect, but eventually the loneliness got to him.

"I found myself wishing that I had someone with me on those road trips to share it with," he says. Goodwin quit in 1989.

The club prides itself on the accuracy of its maps, but errors do occur. Sometimes a field researcher fails to properly record the distance between road junctions, or omits a creek or gives a bad road a better rating than it deserves.

"Every once in a while we'll get a call or a letter from someone who took a car or a Winnebago too far down a road and got stuck or found that the road was a lot nastier than the map suggested," says Jim Kendall, the local Auto Club's map research chief. So when Skinner or Henry makes a rare appearance at the club's Costa Mesa office, he is often handed a pile of complaints to check out before the next map is printed.

Sometimes the cartographers find the mistakes on their own.

On a trip near Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah last year, Henry drove across a little creek and stopped for lunch. Then a sudden thunderstorm hit and dumped enough water to swell the creek into a torrent. A creek that had been 6 inches deep was now 3 feet deep, and it would have flooded Henry's engine had he tried to drive back. But his Auto Club map showed he was near a dirt road leading to a highway, so he took it.

Unfortunately, the map failed to show that the road crossed the same creek again before reaching the highway. When he arrived at the second crossing, the water was deep and running fast. But Henry carries a pair of 6-foot boards in his pickup for just such emergencies, and he spent several hours piling up rocks so he could lay the boards over them as a makeshift bridge.

After driving across, Henry says, "I saw a homemade sign someone had put up that said, 'Creek may rise without warning.' "

That second crossing is now on the Auto Club's Indian Country map.