by Peter Amram
Grigory Potemkin, an 18th-century marshal in the Russian Army, aspired to the confidence of the Empress, Catherine. To demonstrate his diligence on Russia’s behalf, Potemkin ordered facades of fake prosperous villages erected along routes that Catherine traveled. Catherine proved a gullible czarina: much impressed, she granted Potemkin influence in her court.
Thus, a “Potemkin village” is an illusionary facade: like the back-lot set for a movie.
Marshal Potemkin died in 1791; the first true orienteering meet was not until 1919.
And yet .....
You know the kind of joint: a easy-going spot where a sweaty person wearing what appear to be ripped pajamas doesn’t look out of place; where someone can stare absently into space and speculate aloud about lost distance and lost time, and not raise an adjacent eyebrow; where you can lean on the counter and replace all the potassium and electrolytes you want - no questions asked.
There’s one near every O-venue, and whether it’s called the Base Map, the Last Punch, or the GoGo Control, it’s where I head after a tough run in the woods, to re-hydrate and to regain perspective.
Leaving the results area that afternoon, I saw a elderly guy wearing an unusual black cape. He looked like he knew the neighborhood so I told him what I wanted. He nodded, pointed, and said, in a Mittle-European accent, “Go in zat direction for 92 steps, double steps, of course. Turn to zee left for another 36 steps. You are arrived.”
I asked, “How can you be so precise?”
He wrapped his cape about him and replied, “Because I am coming originally from Transylvania, where I am well know among the aristocracy.” He paused dramatically. “I know distances exactly, for I am ..... zee Pace Count!”
And, he added, “I am so hoping you will, uh, appreciate zis establishment.”
The Count was right, give him credit. There was a bistro in front of me as I counted off my last pace. I couldn’t make out all the words over the door, but the last word was “Saloon.” Considering the trouble I’d had earlier finding control #6, locating anything was cause for celebration.
But on the door itself was a sharp warning, which stated:
“You must be one meter high on all sides to enter these premises.
We do not cater to un-mappable rock features.
No map symbol; no service; no exceptions.”
I’m well over a meter high, so I was preparing to stride on in when I heard a low voice, a very low voice, calling out, “Hey, mister,”
I looked around, then down, and saw only a collection of small rocks, which seemed, oddly, to be moving toward the door.
“Hey, mister,” the low voice repeated, in a distinctly gravely tone. “Let us go in with you. Cover for us. Be a sport. Just keep moving.”
I was impatient, so I opened the door and stepped inside.
Remember the bar scene in the first Star Wars movie? Well cube that, and you’ll get an idea of what was before me.
Here was a convivial collection of knolls. There, by contrast, was a line of mute cliffs, in stony silence. Most gregarious by far were the boulders, who appeared in great numbers, often in clusters. I spotted a prosperous-looking earthen bank; paradoxically, next to it was a barren water control that obviously needed an infusion of cache.
Unfortunately, copious dark green lay between me and the bar, and beyond were several streams and a small pond all clamoring at the rail for more liquid. I reckoned that they have been there a while already: they looked fuller than usual for the time of year, to say nothing of the time of day. At one end of the bar I noticed a lone tree (coniferous, by his Column E appearance), out of place and self-conscious as he hopefully chatted up a lush young thicket with well-defined boundaries. And off by itself in the far corner, morosely refusing all society, was clearly a deep depression.
Not one of these creatures glanced in my direction, but I did hear an angry shout. “Out! Out! We don’t want your kind in here.”
I was annoyed, but it turned out that the massive bartender who suddenly appeared wasn’t talking to me. He looked down at the rocks which had trailed me in and shouted, “I don’t want you in here.”
A voice among the rocks asserted impudently “Hey, big guy, show some class. We’re not just clutter down here, you know. We’re actually scree, dude. Big diff. Ask any geologist.”
“Not a chance,” replied the bartender. “I know your game. You want
to sneak in as stony ground and hope someone will finally map you. It won’t work. I keep some standards. All of this,” he waved a big hand around the crowded room, “used to be runnable forest. Now look! It’s getting to be like” - he almost choked on his own disdain - “Hudson Valley terrain! I’ve had enough. Get out before I put you out. And,” the barman added with slow menace, “that won’t be no sporting withdrawal, neither.”
As the small rocks retreated reluctantly toward the front door, I wondered aloud, “Where in the world am I?”
The bartender examined me. I was in my O-suit and still wearing my bib number, which was, as it happened, #325. He decided: “You don’t look much like a regular. Well, let me tell you something. You just might find all this real interesting.” He laughed. “Stranger, you done gone and fetched yourself up in none other than ..... the Terrain Features Saloon.”
I followed the bartender to his station, but just then a whole flood of requests came in from a passel of flat critters all in matching green-and-blue stripes. The barkeep hurriedly began to serve them, shouting at me as he did, “Later. Can’t you see I’m swamped!”
So I sat and surveyed the signs posted behind the bar. Some were the usual: “Not responsible for lost punch cards.” “OVT means OUT!” One sign, however, was new to me.
Finally I got my order in, The barman poured lukewarm water out of a green 5-gallon plastic container and explained, “That’s today’s special. Comes with a half banana and two Oreos on a bed of matted wet leaves. Wait a minute while I bruise the banana and break up those cookies for you.”
When the barkeep returned with the food, I pointed to the sign which had puzzled me. It declared: “No credit extended to vegetation or water features.”
“What’s the story?” I asked.
“Oh,” was the sour reply, “those guys are notoriously unreliable. And we get another bad crowd in here too.” He pointed with his chin. “Over there.”
I turned to see a gathering of deep Vs.
“They’re the pits!” growled the barkeeper.
“So I see,” I said, slow and deliberate. “So I see.”
“I least I can identify them,” he declared. “It’s tougher with the mob by that pond.”
I looked and saw numerous blue lines so tangled you couldn’t tell whether they were crossable or uncrossable or active or seasonal or just dry beds.
“Must be tough,” I sympathized.
The bartender grinned and winked. He said, “Like that there fella Shakespeare says, it’s all creek to me.”
In a single gulp I emptied the water in my 5 oz. paper cup and without looking up called for another of the same.
Then I just sat relaxing and listening to the chatter up and down the bar. Someone was telling the usual O-stories. There was the one about the mapper who had himself tattooed all over with terrain symbols: seems he wanted to be a legend in his own time. There was the other mapper who was hired to work on a 1:10,000 project and quit when it was changed to 1:15000 ‘cause it was a union job and he wouldn’t work for that scale. And the orienteer who hesitated so long at the market in front of the carrots and beets that she finally had to confess that she just wasn’t very good at root choice.
A couple of the voices I was overhearing belonged to a pair named Marshall and Clifford. Marshall was wide and moist and had a fair amount of hummocks in him. Clifford loomed high and hard; his tag lines pointed straight down at the floor. They were old chums who referred to each other by nicknames.
“Hey, Cliff, heard you had a control at those rocky feet of yours today. Did that scare you?”
“Yeah, right,” the other replied with easy sarcasm. “I was petrified.”
They laughed together. Then I heard a high-pitched voice suggesting boldly, “Buy me a drink, boys. It’s been long day in the woods for this gal.”
Cliff said quickly, “Sure thing, honey.” And Marsh sang out, “Hey, bartender! Set a gallon of your best supermarket water for our own Miss Contour here.”
Talk about curves! She was all winding brown lines, and in some places those lines were very close together: very sheer, if you take my meaning.
Ms. C. perched on her seat and looked around with an air of propriety. She had the self-confident, even arrogant, look of a girl that knows darn well who’s going to be photographed first when they decide to map an area.
But her face immediately darkened. “I just don’t understand it,” she said. “What does she see in him? When is she gonna smarten up?”
“What does who see in whom?” asked Marsh.
Ms. Contour gestured. “See that form line over there? She’s my sister. Well, half-sister, really, as you can tell from those intermittent breaks in her. Anyway, as usual, she’s fallen hard for a stone wall. And as usual, he comes with plenty of baggage. Your can see for yourself from here: he’s a ruined stone wall.
“My sis has plain bad judgment,” continued Ms. Contour. “Once she made a thing out of dating nothing but reentrants, but the relationships were always pretty superficial.” Ms. C sighed. “It seems like the harder you work to find a reentrant, well, the shallower they turn out to be. ”
Cliff changed the subject. “I didn’t know you had any siblings. Half-sister, you say. How’s that?”
The lass seemed flustered. She muttered, “Same photogrammer, different field-checker.”
Which made the boys chuckle knowingly. I understood: I’d heard plenty of lively stories of field-checkers who simply hop from one attractive area to another.
“Did you give the runners an even break today, young lady?” asked Cliff.
“As if!” Ms. Contour held out a hand and wiggled her sinuous fingers. “Spur-reentrant-spur-reentrant-spur-reentrant.” She laughed wickedly. “Which is which? Which is which?”
“Darned if I know,” chuckled Cliff. “And I live out there.”
“How about your day, fellas?” asked Ms. Contour.
“Mine was routine,” said Cliff. “But Marsh got some himself action. Had to move, didn’t you, boy?”
“Yup,” was the reply. “Got the word some guy was getting too near GreenX #6. He didn’t look very alert, but Headquarters decided not to take a chance. Even the dullest orienteers get lucky sometimes. So I was ordered to shift 100 meters to the south until this guy went by. Force him into a parallel error, you see, and then I move back into position, quick.”
“Marsh’s pretty fast for short distances,” Cliff assured Ms. Contour. “Even in the early spring with plenty of water in him. Like those big pro linemen in football. He can move when he wants to.”
Marsh said with defiant pride. “They can draw a black line around me but they can’t make me stay in it.”
“Amen! brother,” echoed Cliff. “Ain’t a mapper in the world can keep me in place neither.”
“Who was this guy you were working so hard to fool?” asked Ms. Contour.
“Aw,” scoffed Marsh. “One of those older plodders. So slow I even had time to learn his bib number. It was, uh, it was #325.”
Hello! #325 is right here, and all ears!
I listened avidly, I learned everything. As others besides Cliff and Marsh and Ms. Contour joined an increasingly raucous and triumphant conversation, I heard about the elaborate communication system that links terrain features in the woods. How creaks and moans and whistles are caused not randomly by disturbed underbrush or the wind; rather they serve as deliberate signals for knolls and ridges to scoot away; for pond waters to recede; for dry gullies to change orientation; for rocky ground to shift upright to form a cliff; for thickets to disappear; and for even well-mapped trails to wriggle and turn about, like so many malevolent eels.
I learned of the giant rollers which are used to alter the position of entire hills and ridge lines. Of huge lightweight papier-mache boulders which can be moved swiftly from place to place in advance of an approaching runner. Of special map dyes which cause medium-green to look lighter at first and darker upon the subsequent glance. Of tag lines which reverse themselves at will. And, most sinister, I learned of a special O-magnetism which, upon direction from the all-powerful, elusive Terrain Headquarters, can spin its polarities 180 degrees, instantly.
In short, I discovered the entire kaleidoscope of chicanery which contrives to deceive the innocent runner who aspires only to find a few orange-and-white triangular box-kites hidden in the woods. Now I understand the real meaning of all that talk about everyone who works so hard behind the scenes (ha!) to put on an O-meet!
An Orienteering course is in reality a Potemkin village.
“Pickin’ up some pointers?” interrupted the barman, as he filled my cup with tepid water once again.
I complained to him: “It’s all a hoax!”
“More or less,” he allowed, without apology.
“No wonder my times are so slow.”
The barman raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. He asked, “How old are you?”
I told him. After wiping off the water-stained bar, he commented, “Hills and rocks and valleys and even many of them older trees been around a lot longer than you have. Gotta look at it from their point of view. Want a posse of erratic boulders and dot knolls and rootstock trooping through your household every weekend?”
I thought about that and had no good answer.
“And let me give you another tip, stranger,” the barman continued. “You know the map features that are long and straight and yellow, often with green mixed in from lack of pruning, as though nobody cared about the power line or horse trail anymore.”
“I guess I do,” I allowed, cautiously.
“Well, you ever come in here looking like those features, and you’re begging for trouble.”
I was wary, but I asked anyway, “How’s that?”
“’Cause,” explained my informant, “you’re sure to get recognized, and cheated. You see,” he confided, barely suppressing a smile, “everyone will take you for a ride.”
I know when to relocate. I drained my drink to the bottom, crumpled the cup and tossed it into the black plastic bag hanging from the bar.
Back at the parking lot, I eventually found my car although it seemed not to be exactly where I’d left it. As I unlocked the door, I couldn’t help wondering whether somehow the vehicle had moved while I was gone.
I was tired and confused after a long, unsettling day. The drive home was made more difficult by what appeared to be a good deal of brand-new, shoddy construction in my neighborhood. Wandering around consumed the remaining daylight; in fact, at one point when I checked my compass, I noted that the sun was just then setting in the eastern sky.
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