Close to Everywhere

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.
Hank Snow

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.

Monument for geographic center of the USA

Monument in Belle Fourche, South Dakota


Toy bus at monument for geographic center of the USA

My travelling buddies at the monument in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

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
at best.”

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.


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22 Responses to Close to Everywhere

  1. Tom Watson says:

    I’ll bet very few campaign teams have experienced as much as yours have! They’re much richer for it, of course.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – LOL. I hadn’t noticed any signs of increased sophistication as such, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Ah yes, but have you been to the geographic centre of Canada? Winnipeg, or Steinbach, or something in southern Manitoba, used to claim that title, but that was based solely on an east-west measurement — the true North strong and free didn’t deserve inclusion. Taking north-south dimensions into account, Baker Lake now claims to be the centre of Canada… give or take a few dozen km…
    Jim T

  3. You guys have FAR too much spare time. 😀

  4. Judith says:

    You have encountered civil-isation, that is, our preference for monuments to be in a civil entity, e.g., a town. The town needs to sustain an economy and obliges with a monument and brochure in the hope that you will buy something. I hope you helped these optimists with purchase of a coffee, gas or even lunch. Do you think a space ship actually landed and stayed in St Paul, AB?! Since you are travelling, you may not be watching Still Standing, in which Johnny Harris visits not-quite-morabund small Canadian towns. As we all know, the fun is in the journey – and now in your blog. Enjoyed your frustrations!

  5. Jim Powers says:

    Now, if you’re really into the center business, consider a trip to the center of the world.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim P – Ah. And I quote from that site, “Jacques-Andre Istel has officially established the Center of the World here, and he has built a town around it to bolster his claim (The Center of the World is also said to be elsewhere, making it easier for those who wish to be centered). He’s the mayor. That’s his signature on the official certificate you receive for standing at the Center of the World. Mayor Istel is a gracious, well-mannered man with a vision. Maybe a crazy vision, but a vision nonetheless, steadily becoming reality.” More support for taking Judith’s approach to these things – with a large grain of salt.

  6. Jim Powers says:

    It’s an interesting place, only 10 miles or so from my house. That circular staircase you see in the picture is actually a section of stair from the Eiffel Tower. The French people have invested quite a bit in marble pyramids commemorating all sorts of things. The mayor is good at raking up donations. And yes, I have the certificate.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim P – I wondered how you knew about it . . . Good promoters are interesting in and of themselves.

    • I’m not that self-centered, but I do call my office desk “World Headquarters”.
      Make of it what you will, but I don’t provide visitors with certificates — but you can put in a request, to add to your collection. Modest fee requested.

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – Do you move your desk around to account for the tidal level? Maybe you should issue/sell certificates. Of course, you might want to buy a staircase to nowhere, first, to add a certain Je ne sais quoi.

  7. John Whitman says:

    Isabel: To further ruin your day, do you suppose it makes a difference if the tide is in or out, especially as the tide times on the East Coast, West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii are generally all different?
    John W

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John: Good point. I don’t know whether the US Department of Commerce, Environmental Science Services Administration and the National Coast and Geodetic Survey took (the highly variable) tides into account. I think we should ask them. Draft the question, would you?

  8. Barry Jewell says:

    and for an earlier centre of the world – not an upstart:

    In myths dating to the classical period of Ancient Greece (510-323 BC), the site of Delphi was believed to be determined by Zeus when he sought to find the centre of his “Grandmother Earth” (Ge, Gaea, or Gaia). He sent two eagles flying from the eastern and western extremities, and the path of the eagles crossed over Delphi where the omphalos, or navel of Gaia was found.[2]

    Earlier myths [3]include traditions that Pythia, or the Delphic oracle, already was the site of an important oracle in the pre-classical Greek world (as early as 1400 BC) and, rededicated from about 800 BC, when it served as the major site during classical times for the worship of the god Apollo. Apollo was said to have slain Python, a “drako” a serpent or a dragon who lived there and protected the navel of the Earth.[4] “Python” (derived from the verb πύθω (pythō),[5] “to rot”) is claimed by some to be the original name of the site in recognition of Python which Apollo defeated.[6] The Homeric Hymn to Delphic Apollo recalled that the ancient name of this site had been Krisa.[7] Others relate that it was named Pytho and that Pythia, the priestess serving as the oracle, was chosen from their ranks by a group of priestesses who officiated at the temple.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barry – There, you see? Learn something every day. I didn’t know that Delphi was the centre of their world.

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