September 1, 2009
On a recent summer afternoon, as mapmaker Robert Houdek leaned over his drafting table to put the finishing touches on the ninth edition of the Pikes Peak Atlas, he explained why everybody was mad at him.
The U.S. Forest Service and other local authorities were mad, he said, because the atlas, which has been the local trail guide of reference for 50 years, includes unsanctioned social trails and trails that wander across private property. (This has led the local Forest Service office to not carry the map in its office, even though many rangers carry it in their glove boxes.) Hikers, bikers and other explorers of the local mountains were mad because a new version of the map had not come out in a decade, all copies were sold out, and the waiting list at the local map store had more than 100 names on it.
Houdek, a 60-year-old self-described hippie who drives a 1983 Volvo with a “Support search and rescue: GET LOST” sticker, had been promising for years that a new version would “be out in a few months,” but every time he got serious about work something else would come up: a bicycle trip around Iceland, a foray to Patagonia to collect rare alpine plants, or the endless checking and rechecking by foot of Pikes Peak’s tangle of trails to make sure the map still matches what is on the ground.
“So, let them all be mad,” he said with a grin. “It is a cartographer’s duty to be accurate.”
The new edition just hit stores, and with scores of corrections and editions, it is the best one yet.
The Pikes Peak Atlas traces its roots to an era long before Houdek was born.
Manley Ormes, a Congregationalist minister, Colorado College librarian and voracious hiker, compiled the atlas’s primogenitor in 1914. “Mountain Trails of the Pikes Peak Region” was a free pamphlet distributed to tourists by the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce that had trails on one side and useful information on the other, such as which streetcars led to the best hiking trailheads. The map went through 12 editions before eventually going out of print during the Great Depression.
The librarian’s son, Robert Ormes, a Colorado College English professor and the dean of Colorado mountaineering, decided to revive the tradition in 1950, so he set out to follow every miner track and hobo trace in the hills.
“He told me he thought it would take a summer, and it took him nine years,” Houdek said.
The first edition of the Pikes Peak Atlas was published in July 1959.
The map was a free-hand sketch with no proper contour lines — a much larger version of what one climber might draw for another on a scrap of paper.
At the time, Houdek was just a kid living in Chicago with a geeky fascination with mountains and maps. He moved to Cripple Creek in 1973. He and his then-wife renovated some old shops from the mining boom days and opened a tropical-plant store and a saloon.
“The saloon was great. It was the place in town where the cowboys and the hippies mixed, and they got along great,” Houdek said. “The hippies figured out they loved horses and the cowboys figured out they loved the wacky tabaccy.” But the bar burned down and the tropical plants alone could not pay the bills, so Houdek enrolled in cartography school in Denver in 1977.
Five years later, Houdek was an established draftsman crafting maps for energy companies when he went to hear a talk by Robert Ormes. Afterward, he hung around to critique Ormes’ map.
“I said ‘Man, your map is illegible. It looks like a plate of spaghetti,” Houdek said.
Ormes, who was by then a 79-year-old distinguished author and a giant in the mountaineering world, grumbled and said, “Well, you think you can do better?”
They became partners. Ormes supplied his encyclopedic knowledge and persistent verbal lashes needed to get things done. Houdek crafted the graceful, hand-drawn contour lines. Together they created something rare — a map created by locals for locals. Most communities rely on government-produced maps, which have habit of omitting trails that the authorities don’t care for or know about. The Pikes Peak Atlas tries to put everything in — on public land and private — with a caveat that hikers using the map take responsibility for trespassing.
“It’s an underground map. I still believe the Earth belongs to the people who are out there,” Houdek said. “I have critics, and I see their point, but I have to depict reality.”
When Ormes died in 1994 at age 90, Houdek took over. Without Ormes’ lashes, new editions now come out less frequently. It has been 10 years since the last one. In that time, the region, fueled by the Trails, Open Space and Parks tax, has added trails around Red Rock Canyon, Blodgett Peak and Cheyenne Mountain, among other places, making the map increasingly inaccurate. But that has not lost the map any local disciples, even in an era when GPS and online maps are increasingly cheap and precise.
“There is something ritualistic about pulling a map out of your CamelBak and unfolding it,” said Josh Osterhoudt, a mountain biker and general manager of Bristol Brewing Co. “I can stop in a meadow and lay it out and decide where to go from there. I wouldn’t do that with a GPS.”
Plus, a map never runs out of batteries and it doesn’t break when dropped on a rock.
A copy of the Atlas hangs in Bristol’s tasting room, so runners and bikers can accurately detail their trail stories over a foamy pint.
The Atlas has a few small errors — as a steady stream of perplexed hikers have discovered over the years — but as the new version says in an author’s note at the top, the map is “more right than wrong.”
“Sometimes it is a source of irritation with people I hike with,” said Eric Swab, an avid local hiker. “But this is the perfect map for me.”
Swab carries a GPS receiver but hangs the Atlas in his study. The satellite data is great for telling him where he is, but the huge map, which measures 9 square feet, allows him to see the whole region at once, and how it is all connected — that it is possible to wander from Palmer Lake over Rampart Range, across Pikes Peak to Victor almost entirely on trails.
“It is how I plan all my hikes,” Swab said.
Houdek still draws the map by hand with drafting tools unchanged since the 1930s. Throughout the process of creating the latest Pikes Peak Atlas, he kept bumping up against modernity. The clear sheets he uses to make different layers of the map are no longer manufactured. Neither are the pen tips he has always used. Neither are the large-format cameras that printers used to use to turn the multiple clear sheets into a map.
“This whole thing was like a historical re-enactment.” Houdek said. “Everything is computerized now.”
And Houdek doesn’t care much for computers. He doesn’t use e-mail. He doesn’t surf the Web. He figures all that stuff is just a distraction — something that might keep him from more important things, such as hiking.
“But I can’t do it by hand anymore,” he said. “The materials are all disappearing. The next edition will be digital.
This is the last hurrah for the hand-drawn — no, I’m not going to say that. We’ll see. Who knows?”
WHERE TO GET IT:
MacVan Map Co.
Starsmore Discovery Center
Garden of the Gods Visitor Center
Team Telecycle, Woodland Park
Kinfolks, Manitou Springs
Stones, Bones & Wood, Green Mountain Falls
Covered Treasures Bookstore, Monument