I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve been everywhere, man
Crossed the deserts bare, man
Breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel I’ve done my share, man
I’ve been everywhere.
Well, not everywhere. I have been to the east/west centre of Canada where it intersects with the TransCanada Highway east of Winnipeg, though, and I have been to the most easterly point of North America and to the most northwesterly point of the contiguous United States. It’s not climbing Everest, but it’s kinda cool.
So when I see “Geographic Center of the United States” on the map of South Dakota, I immediately broaden the scope of our trip to the Badlands and Black Hills to include a stop at this location.
The first signs of trouble come with my just-in-time preparation. As we drive from the morning’s attraction (Devil’s Tower WY) to Belle Fourche SD, I read about the geographic center in short bursts calculated not to trigger motion sickness. Oops. What’s this?
“The actual geographic center of the entire nation,
including Alaska and Hawaii,
is 20 miles north of Belle Fourche.”
– AAA TourBook, North Central Guide
“Why the hell, then,” I wonder, “are we going to Belle Fourche itself to see a monument?” In Belle Fourche, at the Center of the Nation Visitor Information Center – the Center Center, I guess – I ask this central question, albeit more politely. It turns out that I’m not the only puzzled visitor: The pretend-center Center has a brochure entitled, “Want to drive to the actual geographic center of the nation?”
“Funny you should ask,” I think, “I do, indeed.” After a bad experience with a line close to the equator – the center of the entire Earth – I am not about to be fobbed off with a monument close to but not at the actual spot, even if the South Dakota granite is shaped like a compass rose, stretches 21 feet across, and has an official marker in its own centre.
Off we go, brochure in hand, justifiably excited. The thrill of getting to the actual center is clearly worth the incremental effort, the other attractions foregone.
Again, the first signs of trouble come with my just-in-time reading. The brochure’s inner two pages are decidedly unbrochure-like: no photos, no graphics, no large print. Under the title “How did we get this honor?” I read what the US Department of Commerce, Environmental Science Services Administration and the National Coast and Geodetic Survey have to say. It doesn’t start with an encouraging word.
“Determining the geographic center
of an irregular area
on the earth’s surface
is a precarious business
Precarious? At best? But wait: It gets worse.
“There is no unique solution
and none of any scientific significance.”
Whaddya mean, no unique solution? We’re bouncing 20 miles along a gravel road to a dusty rendezvous with a marker in a farmer’s field, and we’re not heading to a “unique solution?” What the hell, then, are we headed to, exactly?
“Imagine that a map (of the area of which the geographic center is to be determined) has been placed on a piece of cardboard of uniform thickness and that this is cut carefully along the outline of the map. The center of gravity of this map outline, or what might be called the geographic center, is that point at which the map will balance.”
Whaddya mean “what might be called” the geographic center? Dudes. It is called the geographic center, right here on my map. See? But wait: It gets worse.
The original determination was made in 1918. The later expansion of the Union necessitated more glue-and-scissors work, but with less precise results than I might expect from such a rigorous method.
“ . . . the geographic center of Alaska . . . was determined . . . with an uncertainty of about 15 or 20 miles in any direction . . . When Hawaii was admitted . . . its geographic center was determined . . . with an uncertainty set at about 3 or 4 miles in any direction.”
What? This is the first mention of any uncertainty factor. If Hawaii’s is 3 or 4 miles in any direction and Alaska’s is 15 or 20, what would the factor be for the Lower 48? But wait: It gets worse.
“The geographic center of the combination of Alaska (Ed’s note: And, later, Hawaii) and the 49 conterminous states is considered to be on the great circle connecting their geographic centers at a point where the two areas (Ed’s note: And, later, three areas) would “balance;” i.e., considering each having a weight, proportional to its area, concentrated at the corresponding geographic center (Ed’s note: Wherever those might be).”
You know, I hate to see scare quotes in a description of this sort. I mean, do they balance, or not?
Time to sum up. This activity:
- Lacks a unique solution
- Generates results with no scientific significance
- Uses a method involving kindergarten skills
- Has uncertainty factors ranging from 3 to 4 miles (for Hawaii) to 20 miles (for Alaska) to an unspecified mileage (for the contiguous 48 states)
- Determines a combined balance point with an uncertainty “set at about 10 miles in any direction”
All right then. The “center of the entire nation” doesn’t actually mean anything, but is around here somewhere. Probably. I’m doing a calculation of my own, and the cost of pursuing what might or, equally, might not be greater precision has just exceeded any imaginable benefit.