Indiana Jones With a Tripod

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series xyHt in print October 2015

Why choose surveying as a career? Read this.

My desk is a mess right now: stacks of old field books, dusty quadrangle maps, and a plumb bob serving as a paper weight for my research notes. I have to look under a pile of mining claims to find my trusty compass. I tuck the compass into my belt next to the machete strapped to my side, throw a rucksack over my shoulder, and hit the road. Who am I?

I’m Indiana Jones with a tripod.

heidi indiana jonesOkay, so I’m just a first-year surveying student daydreaming about life after graduation, but in my heart I’m an adventurer, and that’s what has led me here.

I’m pretty sure I’ve found the Holy Grail of professions. Land surveying is one of the last truly cool occupations in the world. It is both an art and a science, which is magical and rare. It’s a profession that allows me to be a geek and an outdoor kid, to climb mountains and hike through forests while possessing large amounts of specialized knowledge about geospatial relationships and calibrated measurements.

Land surveying is a community and a way of life. One thing all surveyors I’ve met have said to me, without exception, is that they can’t imagine doing anything else. I love that this profession has been traditionally handed down through apprenticeship. There is a culture of passing down knowledge, and I have yet to find someone in this field who isn’t willing to be a mentor to someone like me who craves knowledge and experience.

Like so many of my compatriots, I came to land surveying in a roundabout way. I was heading in other directions and doing other things when I stumbled upon it, and something inside of me said, “Hey! You’re a land surveyor, dummy! Didn’t you know that?”

And then it all made sense: my obsession with maps and research, my sense of discomfort inside walls and behind doors, my desire to see what was beyond every ridge. Of course I was a land surveyor! I always had been—I just didn’t know it. It turns out that land surveying is in your blood, or perhaps your soul. I don’t know where exactly, but it’s someplace deep inside because land surveying isn’t something you do, it’s who you are. I’m pretty glad I discovered that I was one before I settled for a life less like me.

Now the only thing to figure out is what kind of land surveyor I am.

Actually, I already know. I’m Indiana Jones, remember? Drop me off on undeveloped lands in the middle of nowhere, and I’ll be happy. My idea of a thrilling day is retracing the footsteps of an original GLO surveyor, finding a bearing tree, and following field notes that take you by the hand and lead you to a monument set in 1879.

I was lucky enough to land my first surveying job as a summer intern for the DNR [Department of Natural Resources]. I may be swinging on vine maples through the Snohomish forests instead of rope swings in the jungle, but it’s adventure nonetheless. I’m the type of surveyor who wants to spend all day off the grid, eating lunch in the woods, trekking through mud and muck, and getting home at the end of a long day covered in sweat and moss.

Yes, it’s tiring, it’s hard, the bugs are irritating, the sun is the enemy, and there’s always a chance that a bear or cougar wants to make you their lunch, but at the end of the day, when the boots come off and you’ve had a cold shower and a nice dinner, you feel a distinct sense of satisfaction with the day you’ve just had, and that is not easy to come by these days.

Maybe it’s naive of me to think that the novelty won’t wear off eventually, and maybe someday I will take that office job and eat my lunch at a desk with proper utensils and clean hands, but when I see surveyors out there in the field still blazing trails after 30 years, I know I’ve got time.

For now, for me, it’s the rugged life of backcountry adventure that beckons, and when I don my safety vest, attach my machete to my belt, and head out into the woods to find points unknown, I can almost believe they’d make a movie out of this. All I need is the hat.

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