Occasionally I’m asked where I find ideas for the Twelve Mile Circle. There’s no simple answer. Sometimes I’ll notice an odd fact listed on a website or through a news source. Sometimes I’ll get curious when I see a strange query in my index files referred to me by a search engine. Sometimes I’ll be inspired by other geo-oddity aficionados. That’s the case today.
The Basement Geographer wrote recently about "La Rinconada: Bottoming Out at the Top of the World." This is a gold mining town in the Peruvian Andes at At 5,100 metres (16,700 feet) above sea level. The 50,000 people who live there in harsh conditions occupy a city with the highest altitude in the world. You should visit that article if you haven’t already seen it. The Basement Geographer is on the very short list of 12MC "must read" sites.
This inspired me to consider the town in the United States with a similar distinction on a national level. A lot of sources consider that to be Leadville, Colorado.
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Leadville has a rather impressive elevation. It’s not on the same scale as La Rinconada although it’s still rather impressive at 3,094 m (10,152 ft). Colorado law classifies Leadville as a Statutory City and it has a population of greater that 2,500.
Leadville trumpets a number of "highest" this-and-that distinctions for the United States: highest airport; highest golf course; highest hospital; highest college; and so forth. You get the idea. Leadville is rather proud of its distinction and calls itself the "The Two Mile High City." That’s an obvious taunt aimed squarely at a much more famous Colorado location, Denver, the Mile High City. Two miles would be 10,560 feet, which Leadville is not. Leadville seems to suffer from a slightly inflated altitude ego. That’s like people boasting that they’re 6 feet tall when they’re really only 5’11″.
Does Leadville really have the highest elevation? Well, it is indeed the highest city. However it is NOT the highest incorporated place in the United States. That honor goes to Alma, Colorado. Sort of. It’s complicated.
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Alma isn’t considered a city by Colorado law. Rather it’s a "statutory town" with a couple of hundred residents. It does sit at an elevation of 3,224 m (10,578 feet) according to the town of Alma government, which makes it a bit higher that Leadville. That’s serious elevation. I visited Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago, albeit at a little higher elevation, and I started getting loopy from a lack of oxygen. Alma actually does pass the two-mile altitude barrier.
There are also a couple of locations that have annexed adjoining ski resorts (Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico and Winter Park, Colorado). Personally I discount those. Nobody lives on the slopes. That’s cheating. If that’s allowable then maybe Talkeetna, Alaska (my visit) could annex a thin tendril to the top of Denali and end the US competition altogether.
City? Town? Location of inhabitants? What qualifies as large enough to claim the elevation prize? My vote goes to Alma.
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Incidentally I noticed that Leadville and Alma practically adjoin each other. They are separated by a single mountain. Yet, it would take almost an hour and a half to drive between them. It’s not pertinent to the article, just something interesting that happens to involve the two highest inhabited areas of the United States.
The United States doesn’t do very well on this competition considering its size. The best it can manage is 19th place. It doesn’t even have the highest altitude town in North America. Mexico beats the USA handily with 11th place at Raíces (3,531 m / 11,919 ft).
With apologies to the significant Canadian 12MC audience, Canada doesn’t seem to do particularly well at all. Canada scores only 74th place with a tepid showing at Lake Louise, Alberta (1,534 m / 5,033 ft), which frankly surprises me. There isn’t any other Canadian town with a higher elevation? That doesn’t feel right. I hope someone can prove otherwise.
Thank you for indulging me while I turned 12MC into a travelogue for a couple of weeks and then took a brief hiatus after I returned. Your patience will be rewarded. I’m rejuvenated now, and it’s time for more geo-oddity goodness.
I like looking behind the scenes, poking behind public façades. That’s why I was trilled to go backstage at Disney World last year, as an example. I used the analogy of a train ride. One sees the backdoor; the laundry hanging on the line, a junked car rusting in the corner, unkempt lawns and unruly children, home improvement projects gone wild and such. Contrast that with an automotive journey were one observes the front door, seeing things as they are meant to be seen. I prefer the former.
Google Street View isn’t immune from this phenomenon. Every once in awhile their equipment and cameras come into view by mistake. It’s hidden from sight ordinarily. It’s not supposed to be there, but is betrayed in subtle ways by situations beyond even the mighty Google’s control. Attuned to such things, I notice when they happen and sometimes I’m smart enough to actually record the position.
I’m not talking about obvious situations. One gets a clear and unadulterated glimpse of the Street View car in extremely remote locations such as Alaska’s Dalton Highway, featured in Street View Beats a Deadhorse. Google used two automobiles on purpose. I don’t know the reason with certainty so I’ll take an educated guess that it’s for one (or both) of two reasons: (1) It would be a long drive back to Anchorage to replace a camera if it broke; or (2) there is safety in numbers should an automobile die in the middle of nowhere on these punishing roads. This remains one of my favorite images even if it’s not exactly what compelled me to write today.
I’m more fascinated by accidental revelations of the Street View guy when he (or she — I’m using "guy" generically) drives past a nearby window. Google snaps a photo including the resulting reflection. Shadows also fit into this broad category although they are all-too-common on Street View. I get more excited by excellent examples of reflections.
I’m providing all images as screen grabs because Google will send their cameras through each of these places again someday and will overwrite them. Feel free to click the map links I’ve included to see the originals while they last. They’ll probably be different five years from now if you’re reading this in the future (is it 2017 already? is 12MC’s secret admirer President? did we survive the Mayan end of the world in 2012?)
I spotted the Street View car reflected in all of its urban glory upon the walls of an office building in Manhattan (map). That’s quite a contrast to the boring paint job Google reserved for their automobiles in rural Alaska. One can see the Google Maps design superimposed clearly, with roads drawn upon it and even the little push-pin character.
I swear I have an even better example somewhere, which of course I forgot to mark. I’ll post it in a comment if I remember it.
Any pane of glass will do. It doesn’t have to be attached to a building. It can even be mobile. I caught a close-up of the camera apparatus reflected in a bus window just outside of Washington, DC (map).
Street View has expanded its repertoire beyond the road network. That’s no big secret. I think most of us are aware of that revaluation already. I seem to recall hearing about their expansion to ski resorts in the hazy past and never gave it much additional thought or attention.
Visual evidence returned to my mind during a visit to the Pine Marten Lodge at Mount Bachelor during my recent trip to Oregon (map). In fact, that’s how I got the idea for this article. I noticed the street view guy pictured above. It looks like a driver sitting on a snowmobile. I can see what appears to be a windshield and the upper arc of a steering wheel on the left side of the image. He dons a protective helmet and a heavy jacket. The WALL·E looking thing behind him is his camera equipment diligently recording the slopes.
I’ve also spotted the reflection of the Google Tricycle. That’s what Google uses when it goes off-road to capture parks, campuses, and pedestrian thoroughfares.
I’d been observing the gorge and waterfall that runs through the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The tricycle, or more accurately a portion of the tricycle, revealed itself in one of the campus windows. I like that it’s so clear I can even see the window shade slats (map) along with tricycle details.
Once I spotted the Street View Car in real-life near the San Diego airport. I’d just landed, rented a car, and was preparing to drive to our office. I couldn’t catch-up to it though. The Street View car appeared in the distance and I tried to get into position while it sat at a red light. Unfortunately the light turned green, the car escaped, and the light turned red again while me trapping behind it. So much for my brush with Street View fame. The car might have been one of the Street View imitators. I don’t know. That’s how I’ll rationalize it.
Readers, of course, are encouraged to post excellent examples in the comments. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find better instances than mine.
I love a good border war, especially when it involves a town featured on 12MC previously for a totally different reason: Gaithersburg, Rockville in Fight Over Borders.
Even More Completely Unrelated
This is article #750 on the Twelve Mile Circle. I guess that’s a milestone or something.
The adventure ends. This article will post automatically as I’m flying somewhere over the vast interior of the United States assuming my WordPress blogging software operates correctly. I will likely be home by the time many of you read this. It’s been a great two weeks of traveling through corners of Washington and Oregon I’d never experienced before. Now I need to finish this vacation and readjust to reality. I plan to take a couple of days off from blogging and I’ll see you all next week after I catch-up on job responsibilities and household chores. Hopefully this final article within the Pacific Northwest series will provide sufficient 12MC goodness to see you through.
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This map, unlike the previous ones actually describes our route accurately, albeit we didn’t complete everything in a single day.
We’ve been blessed by great weather. Our drive past Mount Hood — the tallest peak in Oregon at 11,249 feet (3,429 metres) — was no exception. We’d been spotting glimpses of it all day as we traveled north out of Bend on a route towards Hood River. I don’t generally backtrack although I made an exception here. I had to stop the car and turn around briefly after this view of Mt. Hood appeared in my rear-view mirror.
I’ve been to the Pacific Northwest enough times to understand that this wasn’t an everyday sight.
I broke another one of my ironclad cardinal travel rules a couple of hours later: avoid the tourist hordes at all costs. There wasn’t an option. My wife and I had been to Multnomah Falls on our 1998 trip and were suitably impressed. We felt the kids needed to experience them too. Perfect summer weather. On a weekend. Right off an Interstate highway. Directly outside of a major metropolitan area (Portland). This wasn’t going to be a pretty traffic situation.
We prepped the boys that this might by a drive-by visit only. We left Interstate 84 and nudged down a narrow roadway at the base of the cliffs, the Historic Columbia River Highway. Near gridlock, bumper-to-bumper traffic greeted us as we closed-in on the falls. We drove past slowly and told the kids to look up towards their left. This would be their only opportunity to view of the falls, or so we though. Unexpectedly, right as I was about to exit towards the Interstate, a parking spot opened directly in front of me. What’s that old expression? "It’s better to be lucky than to be good?"
Regular readers know that I can’t bypass a ferry. Only one ferry remains on the lower Columbia River, the Ferry Wahkiakum, running once an hour between Washington and Oregon. Wahkiakum County, Washington operates its eponymous ferry as it has since taking over operations in 1962. It’s the only direct automotive connection between Wahkiakum County and Oregon, which is why I suppose the ferry continues to exist even though bridges can be found to the east and the west.
Astoria is a quaint town near the mouth of the Columbia River on the Oregon side of the border. It has roots going all the way back to a fort established in 1811 by the American Fur Company, and named after the company owner, John Jacob Astor. Bear in mind that this occurred only about five years after Lewis and Clark first covered the expanse of North America to a spot very near this point.
Furs are long gone. Tourism seems to be the dominant industry in Astoria today with all of its art galleries, gingerbread Victorian architecture and Bed-and-Breakfast inns. It’s a great little weekend getaway for people living in Portland.
I took this photograph from the Astoria Column, a 125 ft. / 38m. tower atop the highest hill in town. Notice the bridge that spans the Columbia River with the state of Washington on the far side. It’s only about 20 minutes from Ferry Wahkiakum which is why the old ferry felt like such an anachronism, albeit a pleasant one.
We’d been chasing Lewis and Clark since the Tri-Cities almost two weeks earlier, and we arrived at the Pacific Ocean in a similar location. We toured Cape Disappointment on the Washington side of the border where the Corps of Discovery Expedition observed the ocean before crossing back to Oregon and settling-in for the winter of 1805-1806.
We went just slightly north of the Cape to present-day Long Beach, Washington.
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I couldn’t help one last bit of geo-geekiness on our final leg towards SeaTac airport. Mason County had long been a "doughnut hole" on my Washington State map of counties visited. I veered from Highway 8 a short distance to clip Mason County and finally capture it. That empty spot on my map had been taunting me for years and I felt this might be one of very few opportunities to resolve that discrepancy. Problem solved.
Now it’s time to return home.
Other articles in this travelogue: