AAA Magazines

Mapping Indian Country

On the road researching and mapping Indian Country

While researching AAA maps, field cartographer Shane Henry has spent nearly 20 years driving some of the most treacherous roads in the Southwest.

Shane Henry hit the brakes. Nearly 10,000 feet up in New Mexico’s Tusas Mountains, he’d been steering his four-wheel-drive Mapping Unit truck down a rocky road when the route narrowed to a seeming filament. We’d left the tiny town of Fort Garland, Colorado, at dawn and had been driving dirt roads for hours, wending our way into this aspen- and pine-dotted wilderness, where we’d seen a couple of dozen antelope and only two people. This far from civilization—way up near the Continental Divide—a breakdown could prove disastrous. And way up ahead, the road looked as though it could simply fall off the mountainside.

“Are we going down there?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow and rubbed his chin. “I’m not sure.”

AAA Field Cartographer Shane Henry with his Mapping Unit Truck, a Ford F-150.

AAA field cartographer Shane Henry with his Mapping Unit Truck, a Ford F-150. | Photo by Jim Benning

AAA’s sole field cartographer, Henry has spent nearly 20 years driving some of the Southwest’s most treacherous back roads. Tall and lean, with a penchant for work boots and cowboy hats, Henry, 56, charts routes, notes driving conditions, and helps determine which roads and landmarks appear on AAA’s maps. When I met up with him in late August, he’d been in the Four Corners region for weeks updating Indian Country. Today, we were exploring a road that didn’t appear on the 2018 edition. We were, quite literally, off the map.

Henry frowned. “I just don’t know where this road goes,” he said. “It’s getting late. We might want to turn around.”

“But isn’t it tempting to see what’s down there?” I said, regretting the thinly veiled dare even as the words were leaving my mouth.

He thought about it, then flashed a conspiratorial grin. “Sure is.” In that moment, I saw in Henry’s eyes a hint of the curiosity and determination that has undoubtedly driven explorers onward for millennia. He hit the gas. “Let’s go.”

A time-honored practice

Henry is carrying on a tradition that began more than a century ago with the creation of the Automobile Club of Southern California, whose founders lit out on the region’s nascent roads to explore the mythic West. Expeditions were mounted—including one into the jungles of southern Mexico—and in the ensuing years, the organization created hundreds of sought-after road maps. Like many AAA members who started driving before the digital age, I had grown up using those very maps, but I’d never given much thought to where they came from. Most maps looked so official—and so unassailable—that I’d just sort of imagined them appearing in the world fully formed.

Then two years ago, I became an editor at AAA magazines and found myself working across the hall from nearly a dozen cartographers—actual men and women who made maps. Their offices were filled with topographic charts and atlases, and as I walked by, I’d invariably see the cartographers peering at satellite images or standing over massive U.S. Geological Survey charts. The sight always gave me a jolt of wanderlust, not least because so many of my own adventures had begun with a vague destination in mind and a well-worn road map spread out on a coffee table. 

Of course, in recent years, digital technology has transformed almost every aspect of our lives, and our use of maps is no exception. Today, most people get around unfamiliar neighborhoods with the help of navigation apps. Demand for foldout maps has fallen. But AAA members still pick up several million of them a year, especially Guide Series editions that cover beloved recreational areas such as Yosemite and Death Valley. So the cartographers are focusing more energy on mapping the great outdoors, both by updating classic editions such as Indian Country and by making new ones like Joshua Tree National Park.

The man behind the map

Shane Henry surveys the Rio Grande gorge. He spends about 10 months a year on the road.

Shane Henry surveys the Rio Grande gorge. He spends about 10 months a year on the road. | Photo by Jim Benning

Henry plays a crucial role and maintains an office in the cartography department, but he’s rarely there. “You’ll have to meet Shane,” people used to tell me. “He’s an interesting guy.”

When we finally crossed paths in the office one day, he had the air of a cowboy who’d just returned from the range. It wasn’t just the boots and hat, or the holster on his hip that held a Leatherman tool. As he stood next to a file cabinet talking about some dusty corner of the Mojave Desert he’d just been exploring, I noticed a far-off look in his eye, as though a part of him were still out there, on the road. Over time, I noticed he often had the same faraway look. Where was he, anyway? And what, exactly, was he doing out there?

I decided to find out, especially when I heard he was updating Indian Country. First published in 1936, the iconic map was created to meet the booming tourist interest in the Four Corners region, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet. Central to the public’s interest was the growing fascination with the frequently exoticized Native Americans there—a fervor heightened by bookseller Adam Clark Vroman’s photographs of the Hopi and the writings of John Wesley Powell, Charles Fletcher Lummis, Susan Wallace, and other influential authors.

Today, the Indian Country map covers nearly 165,000 square miles—an area about the size of California—that stretch from eastern Nevada to the Great Plains, and from the Rockies to Needles, California. It encompasses the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Canyon de Chelly, as well as land belonging to the Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, and about a dozen other tribes. The map is such a fixture that novelist Tony Hillerman featured it in his best-selling mysteries set in the area. And park rangers continue to recommend the map to visitors. As Kim Henkel, a park service ranger in northern New Mexico, pointed out, travelers can quickly find themselves out of cell range, where navigation apps are useless. Another vital distinction: Unlike many apps and road maps of the area, Indian Country features important dirt roads and specifies whether they’re suitable for passenger cars or for four-wheel-drive vehicles only. I was eager to see how the map was made.

So one morning near the end of summer, I found myself heading north from Santa Fe in Henry’s company-issued Ford F-150, which was emblazoned with the words Mapping Unit. The truck was equipped with a specialized odometer, a GPS device to track our every move, and a laptop loaded with topographic maps. In the back, Henry carried all manner of provisions: an ice chest, a duffel bag with clothes, camping gear, and no fewer than three shovels (which tells you something about the kinds of roads Henry drives). We were heading toward Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico. He figured we’d spend the night in a cheap motel across the state line in Colorado, but he wasn’t certain. We might encounter a road he didn’t know existed and have to drive it, which could take us who knows where. Or we could wind up in a remote wilderness too late in the day to drive out, or broken down and camping for the night. “My days rarely go according to plan,” he said.

Any of the above might have concerned me, but as we drove, I was too distracted by the steady stream of pastel towns, adobe homes, and red pepper–draped doorways visible out the window. Then there were the mountains rising all around us: the Sangre de Cristos, the Jemez, the Tusas. And overhead, popcorn clouds scudded across a vast sky, calling to mind Willa Cather’s line about New Mexico’s “brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud.” No wonder Georgia O’Keeffe and so many other artists had flocked here. I was besotted.

As we neared Taos, Henry chatted about the work of a field cartographer, whose job differs from that of other cartographers. I had naively assumed that famous explorers, from Columbus to Lewis and Clark, had made many of the maps that we associate with their journeys, but more often than not, we have cartographers to thank. Lewis and Clark, for example, finished their expedition to the Pacific Coast in 1806, but it took another eight years before a cartographer in Philadelphia turned their notes into the “Lewis and Clark map.” Henry may not be Lewis or Clark, but he is charting wilderness that few will ever encounter and providing key Geographic Information Systems data and intel to cartographers back in the office.

Shane Henry

Shane Henry works on his computer inside his truck. | Photo by Jim Benning

A cartographer is born

Henry was an unlikely candidate for the job. An Oregon native with a master’s degree in theater arts, Henry literally tap danced his way through his early working years. But he’d never lost his love of the outdoors. One morning, in need of a break from the Hollywood grind, he and some friends went hiking in the mountains north of Los Angeles. As they neared a trailhead, they came upon a AAA Mapping Unit truck with a flat tire. The group chatted with the driver, former Navy navigator turned AAA field cartographer John Skinner, who waxed rhapsodic about the long stretches he spent behind the wheel alone in the backcountry. 

When Henry’s friends started laughing, he recalled asking, “ ‘What’s so funny?’ And they said, ‘Shane, he’s describing you.’ ”

Henry couldn’t argue—nor, apparently, could he resist the power of suggestion. He was 39 at the time—“no longer the ingenue dancer”—and thinking about a career change. He applied for a job and eventually got the call. He soon found himself on a training expedition to New Mexico with none other than a delighted Skinner, who conferred years’ worth of technical skills on his new charge: how to triangulate your location on a map using GPS; how to change a tire on a steep, sandy hillside; and how to never, ever, for the love of God, open the driver and passenger doors at the same time. (On a windy day, all the mission-critical maps in the cabin could be blown miles away.)

Skinner also instructed Henry on cultural considerations specific to Indian Country. To chart roads on the Hualapai reservation in northern Arizona, for example, you have to stop in Peach Springs and ask for an escort. And if you ever find yourself on the Navajo rez in need of help, you don’t just knock on someone’s front door. That’s bad form. Instead, you park a short distance from a home and wait for a local to step out and greet you.

From his first day on the job, Henry loved the work. “I get to drive around the desert? I get to see all of these national parks? There was nothing not to like.” His wife, Karma, understood his enthusiasm. “He’s curious and loves learning about places, and he’s always loved getting in the car and seeing where a road goes,” she told me. “It’s kind of a life philosophy for him.” Henry spends roughly 10 months a year on the road. Being away from home has gotten harder, especially now that the couple have a young daughter. But Henry is philosophical about that, too. “I want to teach her that it’s important to find something you love and do it,” Henry said. “Why is Daddy gone? Because he’s lucky enough to have found something he loves to do.”These days, Henry enjoys working on all of the AAA maps, but for him, Indian Country is special. Not only did he live in Santa Fe for years, but Karma is Owens Valley Paiute and an emerging painter with many friends in New Mexico’s indigenous art community. “I jokingly say that I’m Native-adjacent,” Henry said. “I have a heavy investment in the culture, the art, and the history out here. And I dearly love this map.”

A road connoisseur

Pursuing that love, we turned onto a dirt road in Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, home to petroglyphs, prehistoric dwellings, the 10,000-foot Ute Mountain, and the 800-foot-deep Rio Grande gorge. This swath of the high plains received federal protection in 2013, and Henry wanted to investigate changes to the local roads—including dirt tracks that don’t appear on navigation apps. “Where the Google Street View cars typically turn around at the end of the pavement is where my job begins,” he said. He flipped on the GPS tracking device and, as we accelerated onto the dirt, a red line on a topographic chart on his computer screen traced our path. “I just love this,” Henry said, gesturing toward eye-popping yellow wildflowers, rolling plains, and Ute Mountain. “This is in the grand tradition of field charting.” 

The dirt track quickly deteriorated and we were soon pitching and rolling. “This road’s a real kidney buster,” Henry said, gripping the steering wheel. Yet his smile suggested he was inordinately pleased. I soon realized that Henry was a connoisseur of truly awful roads, and he had a dozen terms to describe them. A kidney buster was a washboard road so bumpy it was physically painful to drive. A rowboat road tossed the truck from side to side and left Henry’s lower back aching by day’s end. A two tracker had grass or brush growing down the middle but was otherwise tolerable. And the crème de la crème? The one you savor on the rare occasions when you encounter it? A Baja freeway—a dirt road so smooth you can glide 40 mph across it.

Discovering a new landmark

We passed a bighorn sheep and zigzagged down to the Rio Grande, where a fly fisherman stood knee-deep in the water. Then we crossed the John Dunn Bridge, a structure absent from the map’s last edition. Henry’s face lit up. “I think we might want to add this,” he said, pausing to take notes. “This is one of the few places where you can cross the Rio Grande at the bottom of the gorge. And if you’re a fly fisherman, someone might tell you to try your luck down by the bridge. This has real value.”

Henry knows such decisions aren’t made easily. Cartographers have to balance practical information with sheer readability. “To me, the Taos area of the map is almost too cluttered,” Henry said. “Can we show all of the roads there? Can we include every landmark? No. To add the bridge, we might have to take something off.”

The more time I spent with Henry as he weighed such questions, the more I came to see Indian Country—and all maps—not as institutional representations of places, but as human and subjective documents. Every time Henry wondered aloud about a road that Skinner had put on the map, or a design decision made by former AAA cartographer Susan Tsutsumi, who had worked on Indian Country for years, it was clear to me that Henry saw their cartographic fingerprints, well, all over the map.

Betsy Smith and Shane Henry discuss the AAA Indian Country map.

Betsy Smith and Shane Henry discuss the AAA Indian Country map. | Photo by Jim Benning

I began to appreciate all the work that went into this one map, and I wondered if many travelers had any idea. Then early one morning in Taos, I walked out of my room at El Pueblo Lodge and found Henry in the parking lot chatting with Betsy Smith, a AAA member from Massachusetts. She and her husband were touring the area using Indian Country. That morning, Smith’s husband had told her he’d spotted the Mapping Unit truck in the lot. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. “I told him I was too shy to go out and be a fan girl,” she told me, laughing. “Then I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it.’ ” Henry gave her a fresh copy of the map, to her clear elation. “Sure, you can use GPS,” she said, “but it doesn’t give you choices. With this map, you can spread it out and figure out where you want to go. The whole point of traveling is to have adventures, right?” 

I glanced at Henry. That far-off look was gone. He was right here, boots planted firmly on the ground, eyes beaming. 

Jim Benning is editor in chief of  Texas Journey.

* * * * *

What’s in a name?

When the Indian Country map was created in the early 20th century, the term Indian Country conjured a range of images and stereotypes, said Robert A. Williams, a University of Arizona Regents’ professor who cochairs the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program.

“It has always evoked a state of mind as distant and other and not necessarily as civilized. But it also evoked beautiful, picturesque, wide-open territory, and all the things people associate with the West.” A member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe of North Carolina, Williams likes the phrase and added that many other Native people do, too. “I think they use the term with affection,” he said. “It means a lot to them. It keeps that indigeneity in the public eye.”

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