Escaping From Reality

Cartographer’s Story #3, by Jonah Adkins


My late twenties / early thirties were pretty great externally, both of my daughters were born and I didn’t have too much to complain about. Internally however,  was a different story. Somewhere in there I broke. I had developed some severe anxiety which was developing into agoraphobia. After many months, I was able to get some help to chill all that out while I worked on it. My new job as federal contractor started out pretty great, but I would soon realize it was actually so much worse, and it was sending me into a tailspin of feelings: my taxes pay for this! this will never change! you have to find another job! Finding an escape from this reality became a priority and I found it in running.

Running Away

I pretty much gave up on exercise when I took that first drag of a Newport, my freshman year of high school (1992). Any exercise I got over the next 10-12 years came in the form of softball, basketball, and yard work. I was finally able to kick that awful habit shortly after my first daughter, Sophie (now 13!) was born. Suddenly I was able to taste and eat so much more food! Five  years later, my second daughter Claire (now 8!) was over a year old  and shortly after that is when my new job was starting to suck really bad. I had decided to start running to get away from everything for an hour a day and started slowly  walk-jogging 17 minute miles. Over the next year, I found I was able to transfer so much work frustration into energy through running. I’m running almost everyday, and it feels so great.

Finding the trail

The Noland Trail is part of a local park here in Newport News, Virginia. It’s pretty unique in a few ways. it offers some actual topography given our flat, sea level terrain, and it’s 550 acres of privately owned park that was created in the 1920’s. ( and has interesting history itself )  The five mile trail was made with some old bridle paths and was built and donated as a generous gift in 1991.

My first few attempts on the trail were tough but also a fun challenge. Coming from running solely on pavement helped me discover new leg muscles I never knew existed. As a mapper, and some of you can surely relate, I quickly began wondering about maps of the park, what they might look like, how I would do it, etc… This wonderment lead had recently lead me to map a somewhat infamous island I had been obsessed with and was ready to set my sights on mapping the trail.

Mapping the trail

I was looking forward to spending some extra time on the trail. I had printed out the map they offered (AND STILL OFFER!) on their site and started walking the trail a few times making notes, taking pictures, and even was able to my sweet Sophie to help out. I didn’t just want a standard park map though, I wanted to create the most complete map of the park and trail ever. This lead to many hours of off-trail exploring using iPhone GPS and a data collection app (Fulcrum), as well as some rudimentary surveying and lots more note scratching.

Sophie and I on the trail on a HOT day.

I was starting to put the bones of the map together.  I found some great open source lidar and was able to learn some new stuff while processing it for bare-earth elevation, tree canopy and contours. The data I collected turned out great, I was able to use some imagery from local sources to reference my notes on and the dreadful process of actually “cartography-ing” the map was beginning. I had gotten pretty deep into the map when I realized I hated it and decided to scrap the few designs I had done. I decided rotating the map from north-up would greatly help it’s readability and then I found my groove. With most of the map done I was now in labeling hell. There was so much I wanted to include, but on the plus side I  was learning a lot about the park history through the inclusion of markers in the area:

factoid a: the art of anna hyatt huntington

factoid b: lake maury

Top and middle: early drafts of the trail map. Bottom: near complete version

The Final Mile

I was finally happy with the map, or maybe just subconsciously over it, and was ready to share it with the world. Around the same time,  I was going through that transit-map phase i’m sure all cartographers go through. I wanted to make one, meaning make an attempt at it, and thought the trail would make interesting subject matter for it. The challenge of converting the line work to acceptable angles was fun, and made for a super-clean, super-simple map of the trail-as-a-transit-system. To cap off the project, I was itching to learn some webzoning skills with git and created an open data site of all the data I collected  and created while making the map, which I had also put into OpenStreetMap where it applied.

noland1.jpgFinal version of the Noland Trail map (view really big)
Screen cap of the transit map style, read more over at
screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-1-43-43-pmOpen Noland Trail home page

One More Mile

After about a year, I began to loathe the map. You notice so many things in your work; things you want change or do differently. (Sigh) A cartographer’s work is never done. In the spring of 2015, I began redesigning it. I had really thrown pretty much every known and unknown detail on the first map, and also looked at it as more GIS-map less carto-map. The goal being to make it very informational and pretty, which is what usually separates GIS analysts from cartographers. It’s hard. (Sigh) I focused on simplification and beautification. I think that first version helped because this time I could really focus on making the map using a few years of memories and feelings about how special the trail is to me. Plus I was able to use some newer techniques (remember the summer of tanaka contours?)  With the second edition done, I also wanted to make a web-map version using the data in OpenStreetMap. For this, I turned to  Mapbox-GL and Studio which were still fairly new to me. I had started tinkering with the idea of a cartographic “mix-tape”  to demo my explorations with GL and Studio and the new the trail would make a great track for it.

adkins_nolandmapFinal second edition (view super bigly)
Screen of the tilted Mapbox-gl trail map
( see live version )

Post-Run Stretch

It’s late 2016 and I still actually like the trail map. I even allow myself to glance at it regularly with a small print in my office. Though it’s never sold a copy and the park pretends it doesn’t exist, I’m ok with all that. (really!) When you have a great dataset, a place you love, and some personal attachment – it makes it so much better to be up at 1:30 am on a weekday learning something new and having fun doing it. The personal growth and wealth of knowledge I’ve gained over the few years I’ve spent on this project has paid back 10x in other projects. At work, I generally  don’t get too much exposure to new things or the opportunity to spend hours crafting my next cartographic mistake, so this continual self taught learning is super important to me. The older I get, I want to avoid stagnation and stay relevant for myself, no one else.

A bright end to this story is the recent collaboration I did with my local running shop Point2 Running Company . They wanted to hang a large version in their store! while it didn’t require too many changes, the layout was drastically changed from 24×36 to 30×72 to accommodate their space. I must say it’s pretty awesome to see something I made in a public setting like this. :)

Pics of the map in store!