One knee on the pavement, one foot on the ground, the man leaned forward, flipping through papers in a blue cardboard boot box. The corners of the box top were frayed; it was clear he’d been in and out of the box a lot. He was a thin grey-haired professor type, dapper in an outdoorsy way. Maybe a birder. As I walked past him on the campground loop road, I said hello to him and another man who was standing at his side. They said hello back. I continued on, filled out the next night’s camping permit and paid my $10 fee, and walked back to my tent site.
About 20 minutes later, while sitting at my picnic table deciding, slowly, on the day’s activities–Saturday in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, no rushing–the professor stopped his car on the road and got out.
“Did you see a map? I lost my map.”
An “unpaid botanist” from Vermont, John had returned to this park three times over the last five years. He’d hiked miles past the park’s junipers and cottonwoods, through the petrified forest and by buttes striped with coal and porcelanite, their colors changing throughout the day. Along the way, he took careful notes on the now-missing map. The map was no longer a tool to help him find his way around, it was a botanical record of the area and a sign of John’s passion and dedication to the park.
He was, understandably, distraught.
His worry reminded me of a notebook I thought I’d lost when some [if you can’t say something nice] person stole my handbag years ago. Days later, a man found the bag in a garbage can and contacted me. My cash was gone but I got the notebook back.
An organized man—the day’s maps go into the driver’s side door pocket, everything else goes into the boot box—John’s one travel fault is that, now and again, he puts things on top of his car and drives off. He figured that’s how he lost the map. He had it earlier that morning but had done some exploring. The map might be somewhere in the campground, it could be on the side of Highway 85. He had no idea.
I suggested he put a piece of duct tape on the car with “don’t put things here” written on it. It was not really a good time for the joke.
“You’ll get it back,” I told John. “You’ll get the map back.”
I told him the story of the missing notebook. He’d been anxiously pacing, looking down, until that point. He slowed a drop. Looked up a bit.
John was leaving to go back to Vermont that day (he’d been on the road 39 days) but I told him I’d keep on the lookout for the map. He doesn’t have email—“my wife does but I don’t do that”—so I got his phone number and his address. And he drove off.
Finally decided on my own day’s plans, I drove off, too. I spent the hot afternoon hiking and, along the way, asked other people to look out for the map. I also sent word out on Twitter. The park’s Twitter person asked for John’s address.
But nobody reported finding the map. Several hours later, I drove back to my campsite. Another Twitter check but there were no reports of the map.
Then I looked at my picnic table. There, under a rock, was a handwritten note from John. The other man of the morning’s hellos found the map on the ground near the RV water-filling station. John had left it on his car and drove off. But the orange-shirted man found it and called him.
John will probably never let that map out of his sight again. I plan to do the same with his note. There’s never been a better souvenir.