When we think of really smart people, we usually identify with a physicist (Einstein), an inventor (Da Vinci), a mathematician (John Nash) or some other learned profession. Maybe a rocket scientist, or a brain surgeon. For high intelligence, we do not often think of geography and the American pioneers. The earliest explorers who settled the west, like William Sublette, John Fremont, Jedediah Johnson and others are mostly remembered as rough, tough bear skinners and Indian fighters. Got brains? They probably dropped out of the third grade if they went to school at all.


But think about when you have to drive, or hike or paddle some where unfamiliar. How much information do you need to navigate a simple, straight course to a strange place 100 miles away? A bunch: verbal directions from a friend, street signs, maps or a GPS.

Now suppose you are riding a horse from the Mississippi River to the San Francisco Bay. And suppose it is 1820, when there are not more than a couple hundred Caucasians in half a continent. Now multiply the above necessary information, by say, 1,000. You must know where to cross hundreds of creeks and rivers. You must know how to find passes to climb dozens of mountain chains. You will traverse endless prairies and deserts. Knowledge of the cultural habits and languages of many of Indian tribes will be a life saving necessity. You must distinguish between hundreds of edible and poisonous plants. You must distinguish between hundreds of edible, and deadly, animals. You must know how to find, hunt, skin and cook each one, in which season. You will have to remember and find hundreds of springs for water and dozens of Indian villages to trade for corn, horses, deer skins, moccasins and jerky.

Then, after traversing a thousand or so miles, with no map or road signs, or even roads, you must arrive at exactly at the right spotat the correct trading post, or settlement, or wharf. Puzzling together all the parts of the route is like the biggest Rubiks cube in the world.

Oh, and by the way, if you make a mistake anywhere along the way? Well, the stakes are mighty high. You and your companions will likely be dead. Compare those accomplishments with how often modern hikers and hunters get lost in a national park or forest, within 10 miles from a road!

So, I admire the early American explorers as some of the smartest, bravest and toughest people in the history of the world. Something brought that to mind the other day. I was looking at my new REI camp gear catalog and admired the front cover photo. Two hikers were on a trail in front of a steep, green mountain. REI is based in Seattle, WA, so most of their product photos are in the USA. Unlike Patagonia, Marmot and Black Diamond, they do not solicit photos from customers trips around the world.

But something looked strange about the landscape. It reminded me of the Urubamba River valley in southeast Peru, near the Brazil border. [I know, because that is near the Inca ruins at Machu Pichu, which I visited with my family in high school]. The mountain in the photo was too steep for any jungle area in the USA. And the foliage was too jungly to match any mountain in the USA. So where was it?

Well, I knew that there were a number of other geographic areas which look like that, mostly scattered around the Pacific Rim. Maybe New Zealand? Indonesia? Bhutan? But why would REI select a photo from a foreign country, which they have never done before? Where in the USA is also near the Pacific Ocean, and has mountain jungles?

How about Hawaii? I made an educated guess of the location. I turned the page for the photo credit. Oahu, Hawaii. Cool. I figured it out, from only a quick view of a photo of a place where I had never been. There is a lot to geography, and it is fun. Maybe I should have been a pioneer explorer. I have often thought that I was born in the wrong century.

Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.