Notes from Under Sky

A Walk in the Woods

GOTO and star-hopping: It's story time

Apropos of nothing in particular…

You like walking through a forest. The forest has a lot of trees—maybe a hundred thousand. Some of the trees are very distinctive—the largest ones, or in some cases, two trees have grown so close together that they've merged. You get the idea. But most of the trees look anonymous. From close up, they look much like all the other trees.

Someone gives you a map which gives the location of every last tree in the forest. In addition, there are some points of interest marked on the map, like a group of seven particularly young trees in a tight clump, or a hollowed out tree stump shaped like a ring, or a pond that's shaped like North America.

Finding the few very distinctive trees is easy—you can see those trees from a great distance and walk almost right up to them. But getting from those to the interesting points isn't so easy. You have to identify the right patterns of trees. You know, "OK, look for a clump of four trees to the north, arranged in a square. Then, go northwest until you get to three large trees equally spaced in a line. If you make a right turn and go for 100, oh, maybe 200 yards, you'll find the Seven Saplings."

Trouble is, there are a lot of clumps of four trees shaped like a square. Lots of lines of three trees in a row, evenly spaced. If it's your first time out, you're not quite sure how large the trees should be, how widely spaced they should be. Should you turn the compass so the needle rests on NW, or do you have it rest on N and go in the direction of NW? Some people get lost so many times and never get there. Or they get to the Hoop Stump, but it's so small they don't even recognize it at first. When they do, they say, "Gee, it's so small. Not at all like in the pictures." No wonder they give up.

That's too bad, because some of these spots are really fantastic. So much so that a group of seasoned hikers have gotten together to provide a navigation service. You tell them which spot you want to visit, and they'll put you in a coach (not motor-driven, it's environmentally friendly) and drive you there. On the way there, you can have a cup of coffee, play a game of cards, whatever. Once you get there, you may decide it's pretty nice. Maybe the forest isn't such a drag, after all.

Some people like the ponds and the other interesting spots so much that they stick to being driven there. They spend a lot of time, getting to really know the things that grow there, the intricate detail, the beautiful colors. Or they'll take awesome photos of the place—long exposures that capture the motion of the water in a way that you can't really see by the unaided eye.

Others try to forge out on their own. They get lost a lot at first, but gradually, they build up their repertoire of paths. Besides, getting just a little lost affords you the possibility of finding some of your own interesting spots, just by random chance. After a while, they get pretty good at it, and can guide others. Sometimes, to help them along, they get a GPS. They still have to walk, but now they know when they're getting warmer, whether they're walking in the right direction, how far off they still are, and so on. That way, you can still look out at what you're walking around, instead of the big blur it usually is, watching from the coach. Although, a few people keep their eyes so intently on the GPS that they occasionally walk into a boulder.

Eventually, a community of dedicated forest aficionados springs up. People invest a lot of time, energy, and money setting themselves up to visit the forest. Equipment becomes a lot more standardized, and more affordable. Some people get caught up more in the discussion of which boots are better than in the actual hiking. Others debate the merits of finding your own way as opposed to the forest coaches.

The forest is also under stress from the outside. The local town's main industry is toothpick manufacture, and because the factories get a bit lazy about control, many of the toothpicks don't make their way into the little boxes, but instead are sprayed uselessly into the air, where they bounce around and eventually land in the forest. At first, it's not a big deal, but enough time passes that the toothpicks start filling in the ponds, and making them harder to find, let alone enjoy. The local fauna and flora diminish considerably. Even the trees are difficult to see now, as a result of a thick layer of toothpicks. A few incensed foresters form the Coalition Against Toothpicks, or CAT, but support is sporadic. A few factories develop better control methods for ensuring that their toothpicks get into the little boxes, but the major factories go right on spraying them into the air.

Finally, the entire forest is buried under a hundred million tons of toothpicks. Perhaps a couple dozen trees survive the onslaught, their pitiful tops poking out from beneath the dental doodads. The whole community of foresters packs up and moves to the Arizona desert, where there are few trees, and take up amateur astronomy.

"At last," they say, "a stress-free hobby."

Copyright (c) 2003 Brian Tung