My grandparents were homesteaders and spent most of their lives working an 800 acre ranch high in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana. When Granny died in 1986 I moved into her little blue and white cottage and spent five years alone, reading and thinking and hiking through those hills. During this time I came to understand what people meant when they talked about a "love of the land." The hills there have a certain distinctive shape, a shape I learned to love.

Years later, when the world wide web first came online, I ventured out onto the high seas of cyberspace and was awestruck by what I found there. It seemed I could find out just about anything if I only knew where to look. But I wondered: could I find the shape of my Montana hills? Here was a PONARV worth pursuing! Could I render a topographically correct picture of our ranch using only my trusty Mac and whatever information I could find on the internet?

Such a quest may seem odd today. But this was in the mid-90s, before there was such a thing as Google, let alone Google Maps. People were just beginning to understand what was possible to find on the web. Searches which are now taken for granted were then something of an adventure.

My first step was to locate and retrieve elevation data. Then I had to find a way to convert a jumble of complex mathematical values stored in an arcane, punchcard-era format into something a personal computer could understand. Then I had to find a way to turn those numbers into pictures. What follows is the product of my odd little experiment, a web page created in 1995. All the images were either found on the internet or created on my own computer using data found on the internet.

Our ranch is located in western Montana, about halfway between Yellowstone National Park and the Canadian border. That green squiggly line is the Continental Divide. (Map from Greater Montana Area Project)
For years Granny's cottage appeared on maps as Wilborn, population one. The Canyon Creek General Store is about seven miles away, and the nearest town, Helena, is about 30 miles away. (Elliston Map)
Here is a satellite view of Wilborn, courtesy of GlobeXplorer. The gray area above and to the left of Wilborn is a hilltop stretch of broad, treeless meadow (a "park") with spectacular views. [Added in 1999]
Elevation data gathered by the US Geological Survey is stored in a confusing format called a DEM (Digtial Elevation Model). Fortunately, I was able to obtain help in locating the correct DEM from a free public service called the Montana Natural Resource Information System.

In order to make use of a DEM, it's usually best to convert it to a grayscale picture called a "gray map." When the raw numbers are converted into shades of gray (lighter shades are higher) the land looks like a human circulatory system. Shown here are the two separate parcels of land my mother inherited when the estate was divided.

It's not easy converting a DEM into a three dimensional graphic. I probably couldn't have done it without the help of a nifty program caled VistaPro. Shown here are a "gray map" of the Wilborn Quad and a VistaPro rendering of the scene from above looking north.
VistaPro is great at converting DEMs, but it takes KPT Bryce to really recreate the emerald beauty of the land. This was one of my first renderings and I think it captures that circulatory system quality of the hills and gulches. Click here for a full-size JPEG.
This final image is my favorite, an early evening scene in moonlight with little rivulates of fog straying along the creekbeds. It's not entirely accurate in terms of ground cover, but it expresses the shapes I was trying so hard to find. Click here for a full-size JPEG.