Meet the Man Behind the Map
By Margaret Hedderman | Summer/Fall 19
The first time Jerry Brown mapped the 485-mile Colorado Trail, he did so with a 27 lb. surveyor’s GPS wedged into his backpack. The antenna sprouted up over his head like a giant turnip. Powered by camcorder batteries the size and weight of small bricks, it only had enough juice for a single day’s work. To keep both him and the project moving forward, volunteers hiked fresh batteries into the backcountry and carried the old ones out. It was 1999 and Brown was attempting something unheard-of: creating the most accurate trail map ever, one step at a time.
“I think I might be the first person that ever tried it,” Brown says.
Before his step-by-step survey of the Colorado Trail, most trail maps were designed by hand.
“They just looked at aerial maps and tried to draw where the trails were,” Brown explains. “The problem was that anytime the trail went into the trees, they couldn’t see where it was.”
Brown’s first survey of the Colorado Trail replaced the original 1988 map, which was more of a guideline for anyone adventurous enough to attempt it. Once the new maps and guidebooks were published, the trail became immediately more accessible to hikers, mountain bikers, and even llama packers. The number of thru-hikers has since ballooned from thirteen its inaugural year to over 300 last summer.
The Colorado Trail rises out of Waterton Canyon near Denver and quickly climbs to 10,000 feet, where it stays for the majority of its traverse across the Rocky Mountains. It wends south through a patchwork of aspen, pine, and fragrant montane forests, scrambling over rocky mountain passes, and wading across several cold rivers. The final push to the finish line takes hikers over the remote and rugged San Juan Mountains near Durango.
A couple years after the Colorado Trail opened in 1988, Brown decided to bikepack the new route. Ninety-thousand feet in elevation gain proved to be great training for mountain bike racing.
“I went back to Texas and won a whole bunch of races,” Brown laughs.
Originally from Boulder, CO, Brown and his wife sold their cabin during a particularly harsh winter and moved to a grapefruit orchard in South Texas. After several years teaching high school and karate classes, Brown eventually landed a job on a survey crew. The work took him around the world – Russia, the Indian Himalayas, South America, and Turkmenistan. Finally, in the late ‘90s, the mountains called Jerry and his wife home. They moved to Durango, the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail.
As consumer-grade GPS units were becoming readily available, the Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF) sent out a newsletter asking thru-hikers to submit their data to help develop a new trail map. Brown immediately responded with an email detailing all the reasons this was a bad idea.
“I told them, ‘You’re going to just end up with a bunch of crap. It’s not going to work.’” Brown recalls. “The non-professional GPSes really were not that good back then.”
He recommended they use a survey-grade GPS to collect the most accurate data.
It was a perfect example of why you should never call out a problem unless you’re prepared to solve it yourself. When the CTF balked at the cost – nearly $15,000 – Brown volunteered to map the trail himself. After that first trip, Brown completed several more thru-hikes to tidy up his original route or map changes to the trail. The project inadvertently created a new career path for him. (Took out extra space in line above.)
In 2004, Brown helped re-discover and map Mexico’s Lost Silver Trail; making his group the first humans to use it in over 100 years. He has also tackled the immense job of mapping the ever-evolving Continental Divide Trail, a 3,100-mile route from southern New Mexico to the Canadian border in Montana.
Brown completed his seventh thru-hike of the Colorado Trail last summer. This time, however, he was building a new type of map. Brown teamed up with an app developer to create a “guidebook” specifically for long distance trails. Guthook Guides allows users to access up-to-date trail information – like a bad water source or a bear alert – submitted by other thru-hikers. Brown’s trail data and photographs were used in the production of the new Colorado Trail app.
To map it, Brown used a handheld professional-grade GPS unit that collected better, more accurate data than the 27 lb. unit from twenty years ago. It weighed three ounces. Jerry Brown mapped the Colorado Trail with the device tucked into the brim of his hat.