Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Benchmark Hunting for Fun and, Well, Just Fun

Back in college, I was briefly in the Honors program. They kicked me out because of my filthy biker tendencies.* But while I was still in good with the smart kids, I took a Geography course. Being an officially sanctioned smart kid meant I got to do more homework than the plain old state university kids. A whole bunch more homework, in fact.** In the Geography course, that meant we had to do a special project on top of all the other work.

For some reason, one of the first things we learned about were these odd, usually metal, usually round things called Benchmarks the U.S. government stuck all over the place to keep track of elevation and so on. You can spot them on topographical maps, marked with a BM. I was, of course, intrigued.

Through one of those quirks of fate, one of my smart kid classmates was also curious about them. And lived in my hall in the dorms. And liked seeking out adventure and getting into trouble.

So, we proposed our project: hunting down geodetic benchmarks in the county around the university. We checked out a stack of topographical maps from the library, made a list of which ones to try and find,*** and set sail for discovery!

We didn't have a compass, and this was well before normal folks could afford GPS devices, but if you've ever looked at a large scale topographical map, you really don't need either. GPS geeks seem to groove to benchmark hunting as a use for their spendy gadget. I'm sure it's a blast. However, if you're paying the slightest bit of attention, you probably won't even need a compass to find the benchmarks.

It ends up feeling like treasure hunting, because frequently the benchmark is on the map, but doesn't exist in real life (or it's some object the untrained eye won't recognize as a benchmark). Of twenty benchmarks we searched for, I think we found about twelve.

We got an A on our project for going out, driving around, climbing under bridges, walking along railroad tracks, talking to horse ranchers, hearing warning shots from a corn farmer and taking a few photos.

We explored just about everywhere within a 20 mile radius of the school due to our hunt for benchmarks. It was enough fun that we talked about doing it just for giggles after the class had ended. We never got around to it, though (filthy biker tendencies...).

The other day I was out hiking with Lady Luck and couple friends and I stumbled across a benchmark. So, I snapped a photo, and thought about how much fun it had been tracking the weird little things down.

So I'm thinking about getting some topographical maps and using them as an excuse to get out riding and exploring Phoenix. And if you need some structure to your rides, why not try tracking down benchmarks?

*But mostly because of one vile English teacher who decided I couldn't write and gave me a bad grade. Look at me now, hag!

**The payoff was extremely relaxed Gen. Ed. requirements, which meant us smarties could study whatever we grooved on and still get Gen. Ed. credits.

***Our criteria was "close enough to a road that we wouldn't have to find a legal parking spot in order to search for it."