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  The American Surveyor     

The Last Point Print E-mail
Written by Jerry Anderson, PS   
Saturday, 08 December 2012

The old van pulled off a narrow county road. The aging Surveyor had intended to arrive on the job earlier, but he had stopped to take a short nap on the way. Those naps were better than being an impaired driver due to sleep deprivation. He had taken a pain-pill (carefully hoarded from his last visit to the dentist) a few minutes before arriving – recognizing that the walking ahead would be painful.

He had been warned by his wife and children not to go surveying alone. His wife had been visiting her Mother for the last week, and besides, there were only three corners to be set.

Even as a child, he had always been sure that he was capable of doing anything he set his mind to. A memory of his childhood fleeted through his mind … he was barely five years old, and wanted to go visit his Grandpa on his ranch in New Mexico. The ranch was a bit over 9-1/2 miles from the family trading-post, connected by a single track road, often choked with sand and tumbleweeds.

To humor her son, his Mom packed him a “reservation lunch” of canned peaches, Vienna sausage, and a few saltine crackers, and sent him off, intending to follow in about ½ hour to pick him up along the way and visiting her parents at “the Ranch”.

The store was suddenly busy, with Navajos bringing sheep, wool, jewelry and rugs to trade, or to pay off credit extended through the winter. It was almost four hours before she got in the pickup to go after the boy. Visions of coyotes, rattlesnakes and sunstroke encouraged her to drive a bit faster!

About ½ way to the ranch, there was a well flowing a steady trickle of alkali water. An empty peach can was hung on the fence, verifying that the boy had eaten part of his lunch, drank his fill of water, and continued walking. She caught up to him about ¾ of a mile from the ranch house. Encouraging him to get in and ride the rest of the way, he refused. He was almost there, and wanted to finish walking to Grandpa’s house.

His thoughts returning to the present, he methodically got out the “gun” and measured to the two points he had just set at the existing fence intersections that marked the limits of the client’s ownership.

The last point was 600’ up the hill, with about 200’ rise in elevation. He had set the point a few days previous, with a helper who was a bit more nimble. Reviewing his field notes of that day, he discovered that the marker was out of position by about 1-1/2 feet.

Would that minor dislocation REALLY make a difference to the large surrounding Tracts? The question was quickly dismissed. He had always been meticulous in making sure he went the extra mile to do quality work, teaching his helpers (usually his children, for almost 35 years) that “the alternative is unacceptable”.

It was almost sun-set, but he was sure he could accomplish the needed adjustment before he ran completely out of daylight. It was deer season, but he would wear a fluorescent lime-green vest, make lots of noise and whistling shrill tunes. That always served him well when surveying in grizzly bear country!

Reviewing his mental and visual check-list, he stuffed a hammer, vice-grips, nails, flagging and an extra long machete into the vest pouches. The compass hung around his neck, and the steel tape was securely in his back pocket. Almost as an afterthought he slipped a small but very bright flashlight in his pocket – “just in case”.

He got the shovel, to steady him and take some strain off his bad knee. He had to cross two fences before reaching the foot of the hill. He carefully placed the vest over the barbed wire to allow a crossing without damage to either skin or clothing – thirty years and 100 lbs ago, a quick hop and a high swing of the leg over the barbed wire didn’t require covering the wire. Oh well, age had necessitated a lot of procedural changes!

He carefully planted the blade of the shovel securely in the hillside at each step, making sure he was braced before lifting the downhill foot. It took better than a half-hour to get to the point, and it fell across another fence.

Using the compass and steel tape, he quickly located an additional fence intersection, took a few topography shots and carefully moved the steel bar intended to mark the corner. He “took” a bearing tree, making two blazes with the machete deep into the live wood of the oak, to help future surveyor and land owners find the monument. His work was easily identifiable by the signature double blaze. He had to use the flashlight to read the compass needle pointed toward the tree. Pounding a 5-foot white PVC pipe over the monument completed the setting of “the last point”.

It is said that when you die, your life flashes through your mind. The finality of the occasion caused a similar flash of his surveying experiences through the old mans mind.

His first surveying experience had been almost fifty-four years ago, pulling a stiff hemp rope to lay out the extents of a homestead in Alaska. Six years later he would join a huge surge of surveying for highway construction in the aftermath of the Good Friday earthquake.

Over the next five years he was continually pushed beyond his level of knowledge, scrambling with text-books and seeking out the practical knowledge of the older surveyors to prepare for the next days surveys. Before that first summer was over, he had been assigned his own crew. Instead of being laid off in the fall, he was offered a winter in the office – again searching text books and pestering the more experienced for tips, tricks and general knowledge – successfully staying ahead of his lack of engineering math!

The Highway Department would take him to new and exciting places, Seward, Homer, Kodiak, Ketchikan, and Hurricane gorge to plan a bridge on the yet to be constructed Talkeetna-Fairbanks highway.

Over the next four decades, he chained the land from the Arctic to the Aleutians – through the swamps of Florida, the deserts of Arizona, the most rural areas of New Mexico, and finally among the hills of the Missouri Ozarks.

He encountered Brown, Black and Polar bears, wolf packs and angry moose cows protecting their calves. More than once, he had been confronted by an armed and angry land-owner ordering him to “Get the hell off my farm!”

He was stranded on a small barrier island off the Arctic coast, while the storm pushed the waves up until the crew was knee-deep in the surf … thank God for the research vessel that decided to take shelter in the shallows near the island!

He took his crew to the last remaining settlement of the Nunamiut, Inupiat Eskimo in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where his friend and “Segundo” fell in love with the cook for the construction camp. A beautiful lady! They’ve been married for over thirty years now.

He took an airplane in payment for a survey, and learned to fly – owning four different planes, gaining some advanced certifications, he was able to expand the circle of his projects to the more rural areas of Alaska.

Often those flights were more exciting than intended – icing up over Windy Pass, landing on frozen lakes and river sand-bars, and having to improvise when a call of nature occurred at ten-thousand feet, hundreds of miles from an official landing strip, - coaching his 5-year old daughter to throw mail out of the banked plane – which hit the camp milk goat in the rear! It took four days to recapture said goat!

Life was always an adventure! He recalled flying over Alaska and being both proud and humbled to see the hundreds of roads that had been built on the thousands of acres he had surveyed – looking exactly like the maps he created on the drafting table!

Many of his mentors had died over the years – leaving him the oldest practicing surveyor in many the areas he worked.

He snapped a picture of the “last point” admired the quarter-moon just above the western horizon, and started to carefully make his way back to the van. It was uphill to the first fence crossing. As he retrieved his vest from the barbed wire, tears began to fill his eyes, recognizing that the door to his life-long adventure of surveying was, in fact closing behind him.

It was completely dark now, and he was thankful for the flashlight. He had to stop & lean against a tree periodically, as he wiped the tears from his eyes so he could see where his feet were being placed as he carefully hobbled down the hill. A couple of times, he was almost startled to hear a sob escape his lips – requiring another stop and clearing of his eyes.

He realized that the old surveyor who went up the hill was not the same old man who was creeping back down. A part of him had remained on the mountain.

As he put his equipment back in the van, he had a startling clear vision! The translucent form of the old Surveyor sat under the bearing tree, looking at the beauty of the setting moon, lost in his reminiscence of days and times past. A small boy with sand and pieces of tumble weeds in the cuff of his pants sat nearby. He wordlessly extends his half-eaten can of Vienna sausage to the old man, who nodded his thanks as he took one.

How long will they set there, not speaking, but enjoying the solitude of the Ozark hills and reflecting on the experiences of their life? How long? It doesn’t matter … eternity is a long time … and the last point has been set.

 
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