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Where we stand is where we have always stood—places like the Valley of the Nile 1000 years before Christ, digging in the mud for a stone monument that marked the boundary of irrigated lands and were an important part of the annual process that made Egyptian culture flourish.

We stood on the great roads of the Roman Empire aligning and grading as we have always done, advancing civilization into the wilderness, and were respected.

We stood in the Elizabethan Court making our reports to Royalty, and were venerated.

We stood at the edge of the vast new world that is now the United States of America and surveyed it coast to coast, amid untold hardship and danger.

We stood in impenetrable jungle and surveyed the Panama Canal, amid disease and dangerous construction.

As surveyors we also went to war and built things like runways in forgotten places– Guadalcanal, and Saipan, and the Burma Road, in locations our children can’t even spell. We returned to the jungle in the 1960’s and served again, only to stand at walls and cry.

And now we stand on the threshold of other frontiers–the unconquered heavens and the ocean depths.

But somewhere in the last 60 years we have lost something–the respect, the honor, the perceived importance to civilization. Kindred professions have been chipping away at our franchise, telling us we are not important, only a support group (and sometimes a scapegoat). We could make more money selling newspapers.

These thoughts are racing through the subconscious in 2015 as a cadastral surveyor struggles his way up through the last vestiges of black timber in a place known as "Yankee Boy Basin". The monument he searches for now is critical to wilderness designation–not mining–times change. As his lungs scream for air he remembers how twenty years and that many pounds ago these hills weren’t as steep. He marvels about the tough U.S. Mineral Surveyors that came here in the 1880’s with nothing but a solar compass and Gunter’s chain and did phenomenal work. Now, it is just a carbon fiber stick with a yellow box stuck to it and what looks like a short KFC bucket on top with blinking lights and some hurtling devices 11,000 miles up to tell everything.

50 more feet up–ten feet left the yellow box tells him… close enough to dig. Alone in the alpine meadow at 12.000 feet the surveyor starts down. It is 11:30 in the morning–sunny, warm and still. As he digs he notices all of a sudden a cool breeze coming down his back, a slight reminder of the unholy hell that will break loose later in the afternoon. Boiling black thunderclouds will come over Imogene Pass with a vengeance. Thick lightening will pound the glacial cirque and ricochet across the basin, blasting desk-sized boulders from the walls. Inch hail will flatten everything that isn’t covered. But he digs on. Suddenly there’s a hard clunk, and he changes to the trowel and brush. Here it is! Corner No. 2 of the Yankee Boy Claim MS No. 5640–mission accomplished! The clouds have now started to arrive and the hollow booming lightening is now audible. But somehow the surveyor is so overwhelmed by the Technology, History, Education, Experience–and his predecessors that it must be let out. Standing he shouts in exuberance until his lungs will give no more in the thin air. And the cirque answers him back with his own distorted voice, punctuated by thunder.

In Panama City the Canal surveyor lays down his pencil on the cross section paper for a moment, experiencing a strange warmth.

On a quiet Nebraska prairie evening the Union Pacific Railroad surveyor in his caboose ceases his calculations for a moment–certain that he heard a strange but friendly voice from outside.

In a great manor hall in Elizabethan England the Royal Surveyor stammers in his report and must gather his thoughts for a moment before he continues.

The Roman surveyor stands at sunset looking down his line of stakes with satisfaction while winding his plumb bob as a warm and gentle breeze brushes past.

And finally, the sweating, groaning rope-stretcher on the Nile rises from the mud where he has just uncovered the stone that he sought. Jerking around and looking for whoever was yelling–not a soul in sight–must be the heat–or something on the wind.

© 1992 and 2015 John R. Stock. This article originally appeared in Backsights Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society

John is a past president of NSPS, and works for the Flood Control District of Maricopa County, Arizona.

A 1.757Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE