The middles of nowhere
Crossposted from the Last Word on Nothing
As someone preoccupied with odd, mysterious places, I have a longstanding appreciation for an odd, mysterious organization called The Center for Land Use Interpretation. Equal parts arts organization, archive, and amateur detective agency, the Los Angeles-based CLUI (rhymes with gooey) has a particular interest in the forgotten spaces of the West: Among other projects, it has run bus tours of the Nevada Test Site and the Great Salt Lake, hosted resident artists in Wendover, Utah, and documented active oil wells on the edges of the Los Angeles Basin.
This past August, the CLUI crew and the Albuquerque-based Institute of Marking and Measuring hauled a traveling-exhibition trailer up and down the 100th meridian -- the historic inland boundary of the West -- as part of their tour of the centers of the USA. Centers isn’t a typo: it turns out that visiting the exact middle of the country involves at least a few stops and a hell of a lot of trouble.
The tour began at the Center of the Contiguous Continental United States near Lebanon, Kansas. CLUI then pulled its trailer, filled with photographs and maps, to the current Population Center of the USA in Plato, Missouri. The next stop was the Geographic Center of all 50 States near Belle Fourche, South Dakota, a visit split between the official Geographic Center monument in town and the actual surveyed location, marked by a small plaque and a tattered American flag and located behind a barbed-wire fence 20 miles north of town. Finally, after righting one rollover and navigating two flooded roadways, the trailer returned to Lebanon, completing a journey of 2,972 miles.
And that was just the partial tour. Not included on the itinerary was the Geodetic Center of the United States, located on a ranch near Lucas, Kansas. Neither was the Population Center of the USA according to the 2000 census, near Edgar Springs, Missouri; nor the one according to the 1990 census, near Steelville, Missouri. Nor, for that matter, the Geographic Center of North America, fifteen miles southwest of Rugby, North Dakota.
The Lebanon, Kansas, center was anointed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1918, and is officially located in the middle of a hog farm, three-quarters of a mile from town. Though the hog farmer didn’t want tourists, Lebanon did, so the local Hub Club erected a monument on a nearby hilltop in 1940. When Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union, the geographic center of the country shifted to Belle Fourche, but the Lebanon monument remains.
Even without pesky outliers like Alaska and Hawaii, there are many ways of calculating the center of an area with an irregular periphery, especially when the area is complicated by the curvature of the earth. So which is the most authentic center: The midpoint of the area’s extremities? The center of the largest circle that can fit within the boundary? The center of gravity of a perfect two-dimensional replica of the area? The Lebanon center was calculated by balancing a cardboard cutout of the country on a pin, a crude version of the center-of-gravity method that pleased almost nobody except the good citizens of Lebanon. Sensing controversy, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey soon bowed out of the geographical-center business. Survey mathematician Oscar Adams wrote, “Since there is no definite way to locate such a point, it would be best to ignore it entirely… there is no such thing as the geographical center of any state, country, or continent.” He concluded, “This is a case in which all may differ but all be right.”
Nice try, Mr. Adams: In place as in politics, the center is much discussed but chronically elusive. In a 2008 article about the Belle Fourche center, The New York Times reported that David Doyle, the current chief geodetic surveyor for the National Geodetic Survey, inherited a three-inch-thick file of documents — some dating back to 1925 — about American geographical centers and would-be centers:
Though the subject is hardly a government priority, Mr. Doyle says he continues to maintain the file because he now knows what his predecessor knew: “People find this to be really, really important.”
“Everybody wants to find the middle, the core, the essence — we all have that desire for a closure and completeness,” says CLUI founder and director Matthew Coolidge. “But it’s a paradox. The center is something you know exists, but you can’t find it, except by consensus.”
Is this itch for an essential center some odd American impulse? Apparently not: Online albums collect photos of the monuments at the centers of countries, cities, and states, ranging from the center of Maua, Brazil, to that of Istria, Croatia. You can even calculate your personal geographical center based on the places you’ve lived (and yes, you can choose your calculation method).
In 1845, as writer Tim Flannery tells it in his book The Explorers, Charles Sturt set out to reach the center of Australia: “Let any man lay the map of Australia before him, and regard the blank upon its surface, and then let me ask him if it would not be an honourable achievement to be the first to place foot at its centre,” Sturt wrote. Forsaking family and comfort, Sturt traveled through the sizzling sand dunes of the Simpson Desert, finally turned back by temperatures so high that they burst his thermometer.
Sixteen years later, a onetime member of the Sturt party (confusingly named John Stuart) did reach what he thought was the geographic center of the country, a mountain he named Sturt after his former boss (also confusingly, the name was later changed to Mount Stuart. Sheesh.). In the 1980s, the Royal Geographical Society of Australia calculated, using an updated center-of-gravity method, that the geographical center of the country lies 200 km south of Alice Springs and 400 km south of Mount Sturt/Stuart. Yet the Australian Department of Geoscience still lists four other possible centers. So much for honorable achievement: Poor Sturt never knew the job was so complicated.
The Canadian Department of Natural Resources takes a less inclusive, though perhaps more satisfying, approach. While it too acknowledges that there are many ways of calculating the geographic center of the country, it specifies only one: the mid-point of the extremities of the Canadian landmass, just south of Yathkyed Lake in Nunavut. Maybe that’s why the Canadian band the Wheat Pool, in its song “The Geographic Centre of Canada,” can sing “You sleep peacefully in the sun/In the middle of Canada.”
No matter how they’re derived, geographic centers tend to be quiet places. Far from coasts, ports, and major cities, the centers of the USA are as isolated as any small towns in the rural West; all have have tried — and failed — to turn their geographic distinctions into busy tourist attractions. This summer, says Coolidge, the CLUI exhibition was visited by art students from Germany, passing RVers, and motorcyclists on their way to Sturgis, but never the crowds that the town fathers of Lebanon or Belle Fourche or Plato once hoped for. Though we might all long for a center, it seems we don’t necessarily long to visit one. In the middle of everything, after all, there’s nothing much.
Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor at High Country News.