That Confounding Trivia Question


The Twelve Mile Circle has been hammered by people searching for the answer to a specific trivia question. I’ve seen dozens of search engine queries and I’ve received several email messages from people desperate to know the answer. I can’t help them because I don’t know the exact question. I’m betting that one of you knows the question and the answer, and I’m hoping you can post a comment.

Here was one email message:

I was listening to public radio this morning and heard part of a trivia question… Car leaves city (in state A), drives north, crosses state border to State B, returns to city, drives south, crosses border into state B, same thing apparently in four directions….sort of a city/state within a state…somewhere in U.S

And here is another message:

What city in the USA is located in an area where it is surrounded by another single state, so that you can go north, south, east, and west and come to that state line in all four cases?

I’ve also gotten every variation imaginable through search engine queries that I’ve recorded in my weblogs, too.

My cardinal rule of trivia questions is always to guess "somewhere in Alaska" or "Vatican City." Neither seems to apply here. Alaska is an exclave that borders no other state and Vatican City, well, isn’t part of the United States. Neither are San Marino or Lesotho which would also be good choices if international situations were valid solutions to the puzzle.

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Not having actually heard the radio broadcast myself, my best guess is that the answer might me Carter Lake, Iowa (which I’ve profiled before). That assumes the question actually involves driving a car. One cannot leave Carter Lake by automobile without entering Nebraska. Does a population of 3,200 quality it as a "city" though?

21 Replies to “That Confounding Trivia Question”

  1. I was listening to it when it was asked; it’s from this past weekend’s Car Talk. I also immediately thought of Carter Lake, but I was in my car and couldn’t verify, and then I promptly forgot about it. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. @Greg: True, if you want to depart from the northernmost tip of Carter Lake it’s going to require an ice road. Traveling on Abbot Drive though, heading towards the Omaha airport, one is going in a direction that’s at least Northeast and probably closer to NNE (not due north but close enough for our purposes?). I’ve done this drive many, many times by the way. It’s always a bit disconcerting to see the "Welcome to Iowa" sign when traveling from downtown Omaha to Eppley Field.

      But thanks for the clue about Car Talk, because I found the actual question on their website: "There is only one city in the United States whereby traveling along the four compass points, the first state you reach is the same–no matter which direction you choose. Name the city and the state. " It doesn’t mention anything by cars so that assumes air travel is possible. This means… my stock answer of Alaska is a possibility; some town not due north of the Hawaiian islands… maybe Juneau? Go due N, S, W, E of Juneau and you will always circle back around to Alaska without hitting any of the other 49 states.

  2. What about Staten Island? You can, theoretically, travel due south, west, and north and hit New Jersey. According to Google Maps, swimming east from the southernmost point on Staten Island gets you to New Jersey waters, though you’d have to go a bit southeast to hit the Fort Hancock peninsula.

  3. I wonder if they aren’t playing fast and loose and implying Washington, D.C. After all, you could start anywhere north of about Newton St NE and east of 14th St NW/SW and arrive in Maryland by traveling in a straight line in all cardinal directions.

    The fact that this is in fact physically impossible to do for DC’s lack of appropriate N/S or E/W streets to allow this might not stop people from making such a silly question.

  4. The modifier “only one city” Alaska as there are several cities sufficiently north and west of the rest of the country so as to be circumnavigate the globe without touching another (U.S.) state.

    Lake of the Woods might qualify, except for the fact there is no city located their.

    Poorly worded question, I guess. But then again, Click and Clack are engineers, not geographers.

  5. I think I have it, although it’s actually two cities: Greenwich, Stanford, Connecticut.

  6. Hmm, I guess due north of Stamford the Connecticut border swings out, so I guess Greenwich is the answer.

    1. @Bill Harris: Thanks for the Wikipedia tip. The entry reads: "A curious aspect of Greenwich’s position in the southwestern ‘tail’ of Connecticut is that by traveling north, south, east or west from any point in town, one will eventually reach the State of New York. Westchester and Putnam Counties lie to the north and west. Nassau County is directly south across Long Island Sound, and a long boat ride due east will land you on the northeast branch of Suffolk County, Long Island."

      You know, I think I have to call "Bogus Question" on this one. It has so many qualifiers on it that it becomes practically meaningless. The “eventually” run into New York is particularly problematic. Yes, that’s true, but going due east from most places in Greenwich will require one to run smack through Stamford, Connecticut (so the first state you reach isn’t New York, it’s Connecticut). If that’s allowable then I think Juneau Alaska is perfectly legitimate too.

  7. Hm. My home state is rarely the answer to anything, so this is somewhat exciting.

    Before weighing in, I poked around the country at a few of the quirky towns and cities i’m aware of – though I defer to Tom anyway.

    Greenwich works if you first discount the fact that it’s hardly a city by definitive terms. CT has 169 “towns,” very few of which are colloquially referred to as “cities.” (Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Stamford, Danbury.) No one in Greenwich would dare refer to it as a “city.” They WORK “in the city” (NYC), but live in a town.

    That said, as someone mentioned, only about 2/3 of Greenwich would qualify anyway. 100% has the W, N, S nailed down ddefinitively.

    and as mentioned, east requires that you are in the SW 2/3 of the town, have a yacht (most likely if you live in Greenwich), and can sail due east out to Long Island.

  8. Here is the full question from the Car Talk website:

    “Imagine you’re at home in a city somewhere in the United States. You decide to travel along each of the four compass directions, north, south, east, and west. Day 1, you travel due north and you eventually cross a state line. Let’s call this state X. You return home.

    The next day you decide to travel due south. Again you come to the border of your home state and its neighbor. It is also state X. You return home amazed.

    Day 3, you elect to proceed due east and you are shocked to find out that the first state you reach is, again, state X! On the fourth day you travel due west and soon are stupefied to find a sign saying, “Welcome to State X”!
    There is only one city in the United States whereby traveling along the four compass points, north, south, east and west, the first state you reach is identical no matter which direction you choose. Name the city and the state.”

  9. When I saw this question I immediately thought of you. Maybe because they named it “A Geographical Oddity”. If you read the full question it would seem to rule out Alaska because it talks about “neighboring” states.

    Looking at the map, Stamford seems to fit. As so does Washington D.C. if you stand in just the right spot. I guess we’ll have to wait until Monday to see what they say the answer is.

  10. I think the answer has to be Carter Lake, Iowa because it is surrounded by Nebraska on all sides. The reason is because the Missouri River changed course in the 1800s leaving a portion of Iowa on the other side of the river. It took the Supreme Court to settle the matter because both Iowa and Nebraska claimed the area. The Supreme Court said it belonged to Iowa!

  11. After 5 minutes of insufferable banter between Click and Clack, they gave the answer yesterday: Stamford, CT.

    So I give them credit for naming the “city” rather than the “town” (Greenwich).

  12. On today’s show, they seemed to recognize the nationwide controversy over this pressing issue and said they’ll address it in a future show. While they didn’t mention you specifically, Mr. 12MC, I’m certain it was you and this site that brought the debate to their attention.

    1. @Greg: What an odd turn of events. I’ve been getting a steady stream of visitors to this page every day since they announced the answer so I guess there are a number of people who aren’t satisfied with the solution offered. If they stumble across this comment, hopefully they’ll tell their listeners to come to 🙂

  13. @Dale Sanderson I can’t believe I never thought of Portage Des Sioux, considering I live only 10-15 miles away. There has to be other examples out there somewhere that haven’t been mentioned yet.

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