I enjoyed walking through Grand Rapids, Michigan early each morning before most people crawled out of bed. It offered opportunities to explore quiet corners at my own pace and discover sites that I bet most visitors never would have noticed. Naturally I put my own geo-oddity spin on things, observing peculiarities that fit the offbeat themes of Twelve Mile Circle.
Why Grand? Why Rapids?
Long before I arrived I wondered how Grand Rapids got its name. I couldn’t see rapids, grand or otherwise, as I scanned satellite images of the city. It took a little searching although I uncovered an explanation eventually from the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, quoting from a 1913 source.
This sharp fall or decline in the river bed at Grand Rapids is disguised because of the power canals on each side of the river which take up the water and carry it through many factories and out through numerous tail races, so that the name "Grand Rapids" is not suggested any more by the present appearance of the river.
The Grand River running through downtown Grand Rapids fell about 17 feet between current-day Sixth Street and Wealthy Street, a distance of about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometres). Modern controls masked the drop with a series of terraced ledges. Nonetheless, the elevation truly dropped. I observed this for myself at Fish Ladder Park, a brutalist contraption that let migrating fish push upriver past one of the higher drops (map).
I didn’t realize that Grand Rapids placed so much pride in its logo until I walked around town awhile. I noticed it everywhere.
Lots of street signs included the emblem on their left sides, placed before to the name of the street. It seemed to be a geographic representation to me. I interpreted the blue line as the Grand River, perhaps with the squiggled portion noting the "rapids." Maybe the yellow circle represented a larger metropolitan area radiating from the city center in all directions?
That red blob became a Rorschach test. My geo-centric brain figured it could signify the original historic city boundaries or something. My son the animal lover thought the left knob could be a fish tail symbolizing fish swimming through the rapids. Notions like that filled my mind during those early morning walks. I daydreamed little non sequiturs, a wonderful way to get away from everything mentally and clear away the complexities of modern life.
Look, the logo even appeared on manhole covers, trash cans, and city vehicles. I tried to ignore them after awhile even though it became increasingly difficult as it appeared in even more places. Also I learned that maybe I had a thing for manhole cover designs, following on my discovery last year in Nantucket (photo). I’ll have to pay more attention in the future.
The whole mystery could have been solved if I’d simply searched on the Intertubes where the answer hid in plain site. Instead I preferred to wander around the city hoping to figure it out on my own, only to forget all about it as soon as I got near a computer. Silly me.
La Grande Vitesse by Russell Sekeet on Flickr (cc)
The city clearly said,
The City of Grand Rapids’ logo was designed by Joseph Kinnebrew, an internationally-recognized sculptor and painter. It incorporates a yellow sun, blue river, and a red representation of the "La Grande Vitesse" sculpture by Alexander Calder, which was erected in downtown Grand Rapids on Calder Plaza in 1969.
I let that be a lesson to myself. Next time I will act on my curiosity immediately instead of waiting until I returned home to research an article. I passed within maybe two blocks of the Calder sculpture (map) and never saw it. That became a big missed opportunity. I would have made an effort had I known about it.
The Original Boundary
Grand Rapids remembered its past. I didn’t find the entirety of its original 1850 boundaries during my morning strolls although I discovered a couple of them. One ran down Eastern Avenue Southeast (map). From its name and placement relative to downtown, I assumed it must have been the original eastern boundary although I couldn’t see a street with that name on an 1853 map that I found online. Wealthy Street also featured similar boundary signs and that vintage map did reference it by name as the city’s southern border.
Wealthy Street seemed oddly named. It was nice although it hardly seemed wealthy. Certainly other streets in Grand Rapids featured many more stately homes constructed during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Grand Rapids Magazine provided the answer.
Jefferson Morrison was a merchant in the early days of Grand Rapids. He named two streets in the city: one to honor himself (Jefferson Avenue) and one to honor his wife, Wealthy (Wealthy Street). Mrs. Morrison’s unusual first name proved to be somewhat ironic, as the family went into serious debt after building an extravagant house between modern-day Ionia and Monroe avenues.
Wealthy didn’t describe a street as much as it described a woman who stayed Wealthy even if she no longer remained wealthy, and the street remained Wealthy long after people forgot about Wealthy Morrison.
Why would parents name their child Wealthy? That mystery, alas, remained unsolved.
The Inexplicable Sign
Then I found the inexplicable sign on Eureka Avenue, a short one-way street through a suburban neighborhood (map). Residents couldn’t park on the eastern side of Eureka Avenue on odd days during the winter months, except for several hours in the evening. A similar prohibition applied to the western side on even days. I figured it must have been related to snow removal. Hopefully most people living on Eureka Avenue had driveways. Moving parked cars from one side of the road to the other every day for five months of the year would get old after awhile. Also, no other street seemed to have this prohibition. I pondered that one for awhile too.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
The second time I searched on the exact phrase the "Last place in [geographic area] to"… while leaving the remainder of the statement blank, I focused on countries in Asia. I knew it would be more difficult than the examination of England. However, I didn’t figure it would be nearly impossible. Many countries produced not a single occurrence. I found a few examples after extensive searching, instances both fascinating and completely unpredictable.
Last Place in China where Glyptostrobus Grows in the Wild
Glyptostrobus pensilis by Chris_Williams_PhD on Flickr (cc)
I’d never heard of the conifer Glyptostrobus pensilis, a native of subtropical southeast China and small slivers of Laos and Vietnam. I’d never heard of an organization called the American Conifer Society either, yet it existed as did the tree from China. The Society said,
Commonly called Chinese Water Pine and Chinese Swamp Cypress, both misnomers… The genus formerly had a much wider range, covering most of the Northern Hemisphere, including the high Arctic during the Paleocene and Eocene… Chinese Swamp cypress is nearly extinct in the wild due to overcutting for its valuable decay-resistant, scented wood, but it is also fairly widely planted along the banks of rice paddies where its roots help to stabilize the banks by reducing soil erosion.
Glyptostrobus pensilis survived to become the only remaining species of the genus Glyptostrobus. Dendrologists once thought Glyptostrobus went extinct in the wild in its native Chinese habitat however small clusters continued to cling to life in mangrove swamps near Zhuhai (map), perhaps its final stand. Fortunately gardeners and arborists also cultivated Glyptostrobus as an ornamental tree in plenty of other places, including China. It can grow throughout much of the southeastern United States and in parts of the Pacific Northwest, too. The specimen in the photograph grew at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC.
Just don’t go looking for Glyptostrobus in the wild in China except in Zhuhai.
Last Place in Japan Banning Women
大峯 (Mt. Omine) by Kemm Ell Zee on Flickr (cc)
A modern industrial nation banning women seemed oddly anachronistic, yet a place in Japan continued its 1,3000 year prohibition unabated. Women weren’t allowed on the peak of a mountain within the Omine range, in the Kansai region of Honshu (map). Officially called Mount Sanjo although more popularly called Mount Omine, the summit sheltered the monastery of Ominesanji, the holiest place of Shugendo Buddhists.
"It’s not about discrimination," explained the monk who led my expedition when I questioned him about the "No Women Admitted" sign. "In the past, this was a dangerous mountain with bears, rock falls and other hazards. People still die on this mountain today. The ‘ban’ is there to protect women in the way you would want to protect your mother or sister or wife from danger. It also exists so that we do not get distracted from our practice…"
All other Japanese monasteries lifted their prohibitions years ago. Ominesanji never changed. The ban didn’t have the force of law — and women were known to ignore the signs occasionally — although the monks of Mount Omine still considered those disregarding their traditions as severely breaching local etiquette.
Last place in Indonesia to See the Total Solar Eclipse of 2016
Total Solar Eclipse 2016 in Indonesia by skyseeker on Flickr (cc)
The moon passed between the earth and the sun on March 8-9, 2016, creating a narrow band of total darkness across a swatch of the South Pacific. Widespread areas of Oceania and southeast Asia witnessed the event partially. Very little land, generally only the open ocean, fell within the full blackout. Parts of Indonesia did experience the maximum effects of the eclipse. The tiny island of Pulau Fani (map) became the last place in the nation to go completely dark, for 2 minutes and 14 seconds. I’d never heard of Pulau Fani and I suspected many in the Twelve Mile Circle audience hadn’t either. I found very little information about the island although it had a listing on Indonesian Wikipedia. Roughly translated,
Pulau Fani is the outer islands of Indonesia, located in the Pacific Ocean and is bordered by the state Palau… For the latest data existing seasonal population numbers there are 11 households.
I also learned that a total eclipse will cross the United States on August 21, 2017. I think I need to find a way to visit my relatives in Charleston, South Carolina where a total blackout will occur.
Last place in Cambodia to Fall to the Khmer Rouge
big_preah_vihear by lokryan on Flickr (cc)
The Khmer Rouge, an army of Communist agitators, rebelled against Cambodia’s Khmer Republic beginning in the mid 1960s. The Khmer Republic didn’t have sufficient unity or the strength to contain the Khmer Rouge as the years passed, and finally fell to it in 1975. The last vestige of the old Khmer Republic lingered for a few weeks longer at a single place, at the Preah Vihear Temple (ប្រាសាទព្រះវិហារ).
Ironically, Preah Vihear (map) might actually belong in Thailand. It was built as a Hindu temple atop a summit in the Dangrek Mountains in the 11th Century. Nine hundred years later, French colonialists in Cambodia negotiated with the Rattanakosin Kingdom of Siam to establish a border. Part of it followed the spine of Dangrek Mountains. Oddly, the map placed Preah Vihear within Cambodia even though it fell on Siam’s side of the watershed as did the primary path leading to it. Siam, renamed Thailand, later disputed this designation and appealed to the International Court of Justice. The ICJ sided with Cambodia in 1962, declaring that someone should have raised concerns back in 1907 after the original survey. Thailand waited too long to push its claim.
Preah Vihear provided a great natural defensive position. Attackers could not approach the temple from the Cambodian side without scaling cliffs. Forces loyal to the Khmer Republic held out for more than a month until the Khmer Rouge dislodged them with intensive shelling. They had an easy escape route, though. They simply walked a few metres across the border into Thailand. Tragically, the victorious Communists would perpetrated a horrible national genocide where as many as three million people died before Vietnamese forces toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow earned instant fame during the gangster era of the 1930’s. They and their gang were despicable people, common thugs and criminals. They also practiced extreme violence, killing numerous people including nine police officers. They robbed banks and shops through midland America, from Minnesota down to the Gulf states, with much of their activity focused in Texas and Louisiana.
Bonnie & Clyde on Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
Bonnie and Clyde came from the Dallas, Texas area, both surviving tough childhoods in poverty. Clyde became a hardened criminal at a young age with a string of arrests and a serious prison record by the time he turned 21 years old. Bonnie didn’t become a criminal until she met Clyde, gladly tagging along on a multi-state crime spree. They quickly captured the imagination of the public in an era when women weren’t generally thought of as gangsters. Undoubtedly, the romantic angle of criminal lovebirds with rifles also piqued interest.
They mastered quirks of geography, oddly enough. Bonnie and Clyde understood the power of state borders and the limitations of law enforcement. Their crimes fell within the jurisdiction of state enforcement. They committing crimes near state borders and simply slipping across the line to neighboring states to escape. That simple trick kept them a step ahead of the law.
Bonnie & Clyde Hideout in Joplin, Missouri
via Google Street View, April 2013
The duo made a series of mistakes during a brief hideaway in Joplin, Missouri. Otherwise they may have remained unknown to the public. They needed to lay low for awhile with members of their extended gang and selected a garage apartment at 3347½ Oak Ridge Drive (map). Joplin offered quick access to Kansas and Oklahoma should the gang need to flee. They located out of site in a quiet neighborhood. Then they got drunk every night and made lots of noise into the late hours. Neighbors contacted police to report rowdy behavior, not because anyone suspected a house full of armed robbers. Police thought they were busting bootleggers when they raided the apartment on April 13, 1933. Instead they encountered a pack of killers who opened fire. Two policemen died and the gang escaped.
However they fled in a hurry, leaving most their belongings behind including identification papers and a camera with rolls of undeveloped film. Images included Bonnie and Clyde acting as a happy couple, posing with weapons, and acting lovingly tough. One iconic image showed Bonny with a cigar and a pistol in a very unladylike manner. Images hit the newswires immediately, and became front page material in newspapers around the nation. Bonnie, Clyde and the newly-dubbed Barrow Gang became instant celebrities.
They lived in the apartment for less than two weeks. However the trove of photographs created a myth that resonated with the public, catapulting the couple into instant fame for all the wrong reasons. The significance of this location justified its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. It even had its own website.
The Last Stand
Bonnie & Clyde historical marker in Louisiana by finchlake2000 on Flickr (cc)
Their fixation on geography eventually became their undoing. The state of Texas called a retired Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in 1934. He understood the geography and also saw that the gang traveled in a predictable manner. Notably they visited family members upon occasion. Hamer assembled several Texas and Louisiana officers to negate the border issues, then on a hunch, began a stakeout along a secluded country road. He guessed correctly. Bonnie and Clyde rambled down that road in the middle of nowhere near Gibsland, Louisiana, and drove straight into an ambush (map). The officers never attempted to stop the duo, they simply opened fire with automatic rifles and finished the job with shotguns. Lawmen emptied 130 rounds into the stolen 1932 Ford V-8 automobile, riddling Bonnie and Clyde with lead and killing them on the spot.
The Bienville Parish police department erected a stone monument at the site of the ambush. Vandals shot it repeatedly, leaving it damaged and pockmarked. I supposed it seemed appropriate given what happened to Bonnie and Clyde on that same spot.
Bonnie & Clyde’s Death Car by Jay Bonvouloir on Flickr (cc)
The Twelve Mile Circle audience would be forgiven for not wanting to travel all the way to Gibsland, Louisiana, to see where Bonnie and Clyde died. One could still see where they died, their actual car, in a more accessible location. Whiskey Pete’s casino in Primm, Nevada put the car on exhibit in recent years along with the tattered shirt Clyde wore at his death (map).
I thought Bonnie and Clyde might approve. Primm sat directly beside the border, barely inside Nevada. A spectral Barrow Gang could ride again and escape into California in a pinch.