Evidence of earlier migrations appeared as we rolled along our Center of the Nation journey, evoking a time when people crossed these High Plains without benefit of motors. Initially the migration involved early Nineteenth Century explorers and hunters of European descent pushing from the East Coast into lands long settled by Native Americans. Then came their brethren at mid-century in successively larger waves to avoid religious persecution or to reach the goldfields or later to homestead in fertile valleys farther west. A few of them remained in the empty plains although most of them simply passed through on their way to Utah or California or Oregon or wherever.
oregontrail by erikthenorsk on Flickr (cc)
I encountered small slivers of their ghostly paths in Wyoming and later in Nebraska. There weren’t a lot of options for those people brave or desperate enough to consider a transcontinental journey in the days of covered wagons. Emerging trails featured different starting and ending points although many of them converged at places towards the middle due to underlying topography, the river valleys and mountain barriers that favored certain routes. The Mormon Trail, the California Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express, the telegraph system and railroads all followed similar paths at points. I converged there as well for a stretch of about 75 miles (120 kilometres), reflecting upon some of those early pioneers’ experiences at several noteworthy landmarks.
Ironically I’d climbed a different Chimney Rock earlier in the summer in North Carolina. Arguably, the Chimney Rock in western Nebraska garnered much greater historical significance and name recognition (map). Pioneers walking the trails would have seen this landmark looming on the western horizon, a bony finger to the sky, for days before they passed it. Even today, so instantly recognizable, the state of Nebraska chose to feature Chimney Rock on its border signs and its state Quarter.
Chimney Rock rose more than 300 feet (91 metres) above the surrounding, almost level terrain. It became iconic, a famous landmark referenced ubiquitously by pioneers compiling journals of daily life along the trails. There were hundreds if not thousands of accounts. Native Americans revered the outcrop too. The local Sioux didn’t have chimneys and named the spire for something more recognizable to their hunting and gathering society, bestowing variations of the name Elk Penis upon it. That didn’t sit well with the sensibilities of new arrivals so it became Chimney Rock to those conversing in English.
Regardless of name, the towering stone signified an important transition in a long journey across a vast continent. People walking the emigrant trails understood that the promontory marked the end of the plains. Soon travel would slow, with a gradual uphill climb towards the Rocky Mountains.
Another thirty miles (50 km) farther west following the banks of the North Platte River, emigrants encountered Scotts Bluff (map). This presented a significant obstacle. Early trails skipped the 800 foot (250 m) bluff using a southern bypass called Robidoux Pass. Mormons on their way to Utah and the gold rush 49’ers heading to California generally took the detour. A few hearty souls took a more difficult shortcut at a lowpoint between Scott Bluff and a neighboring bluff. Things changed in 1851 when the US Army Corps of Engineers improved the shortcut and named it Mitchell Pass. It shortened the trail by eight miles (13 km) — saving at least a half day of walking — and it quickly became the preferred route.
Trail widths weren’t as precise as one might imagine. Anyone who has ever experienced a dry dirt road during the summer would understand. Oxen and wagons threw dust into the air. Pioneers didn’t travel sequentially one-behind-the-other, rather they fanned-out widely to avoid dust, so trail widths bore little resemblance to precisely defined modern roads. However the tables turned at Scotts Bluff. Wagons had to pass single-file through narrow Mitchell Pass. The pounding of 350,000 people with wagons and oxen created some of the most visible signs of the Oregon Trail still in existence. Here, at Scotts Bluff National Monument, one can literally walk in the footsteps of those earlier travelers. The swale created by thousands of wagons dug several feet deep into the underlying soil (clearly visible in the photo I took).
Continuing west along the passage of the North Platte River another fifty miles (80 km) brought emigrants to its confluence with the Laramie River. Fort Laramie (map) offered respite and protection, a spot occupied since the 1830’s when a private fur trading post opened. The US Government recognized the strategic significance of this position and acquired the post in 1849. It became the Army’s most important presence on the Northern Plains, a way to protect wagon trains and keep a strong military force amongst Native American tribes who rightfully resented incursions upon their territory.
Fort Laramie held its key position through the entire pioneer period of the late 19th Century. It become an anachronism when transcontinental railroads replaced wagons and as Native inhabitants were forced onto reservations. The fort disbanded in 1890 and most of its assets were sold to the public. Much later the Government re-acquired what was left to create Fort Laramie National Historic Site.
Cold Spring Campground
Cold Spring Campground (map) was much less significant than the other trailside sites I encountered. It was the westernmost site on my brief journey on the trail so I wanted to mention it anyway. Leaving Fort Laramie, pioneers would have arrived at the Cold Spring Campground probably after the first full day of walking. It offered a place to camp overnight with a reliable source of water. Soldiers from Fort Laramie also dug rifle pits into the nearby hillside for additional protection both for the emigrants and for their own workers who quarried stones nearby to improve the fort. There were dozens of other sites like this along full length of the trails.
I had an opportunity to cover only a very short segment of the conjoined Mormon-California-Oregon Trail path. Now I’d like to pick one of those trails and follow it in its entirety from east to west. I will place that on the long 12MC list of activities I hope to cover someday.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Transporting a participant through a grueling six day, six state race series created a huge benefit for a geo-geek such as myself, the inherent need to cover a lot of territory. I’d driven through parts of the target area previously on a cross-country trip many years ago. I’d completed the typical tourist trek through Badlands, Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower on an Interstate 90 flyby in 1992. I didn’t have much of a chance to stop and linger during that long ago road trip. This time it would be different. I’d poke into completely obscure corners as dictated by race sites.
The series embodied two underlying premises, running and geography. The race director had to align six distinct events as close as possible to the confluence of multiple state borders to minimize travel distances, generating unusual selections removed from tourist trails. It served the needs of a very small and elite target audience; marathoners (and half-marathoners) who wished to complete a race in each of 50 US states. I held only one goal in common — the geographic portion — and that was enough. I was going to grab some rare spots on the map and leave the extreme athletic achievements to others.
We crossed a lot of state borders. Our efforts focused on passing between various small towns near state boundaries where each race would take place the following morning. Routes generally strayed away from Interstate highways although I did enjoy driving a completely legal 80 miles per hour (130 km/hr) briefly on I-90 as we left Wyoming.
I began to notice something peculiar on the lightly-traveled back country byways of the High Plains. There always seemed to be a pull-out by the side of the road at each state border where one could safely park a vehicle and walk to the boundary sign to snap a photograph. It seemed that highway officials recognized the precious few tourist attractions and went out of their way to turn anything noteworthy into a photo op. The next thing I knew, and without really trying, I’d compiled a collection of state border signs for Nebraska (above), Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Nebraska sign (map) showed Chimney Rock which I will talk about in a future installment. I didn’t stop for Colorado. I’m not sure why, I think I was getting tired of the game by then.
I completed a personally memorable state milestone during the trip that I’d been chasing for awhile. I’d long since visited all 50 US states, completing that journey more than a dozen years ago. However a handful of those crossings involved lackluster efforts, barely placing a toe on the other side of the border. My Montana "visit" had been particularly egregious, a thirty second effort when I visited Yellowstone National Park on the aforementioned cross-country trip so many years ago. One of the races took place in Baker, Montana so I spent the night there. I also spent a night in South Dakota two days later, whereas previously I’d only driven across the state without stopping. With those two events, I could now say I’d stayed at least one full night in every state.
Amidon, North Dakota (map)
Notwithstanding, counties were the real stars of the trip as I colored a slew of hard-to-reach spaces on my county counting map. Our route zigged and zagged in counterintuitive directions as I steered across as many county borders as possible while eliminating doughnut holes. I realized I might not travel this way again anytime soon. This might be my only chance. I drew a nice, solid rectangle of captured counties on the eastern side of Wyoming and Montana, and the western side of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, tallying 28 new counties in the process. My total stood at 1,301 at the end of the journey, 41.1% of counties in the United States.
As an example, the first race was held in Baker, Montana and the second race in Bowman, North Dakota. Here was the path I blazed between them.
Logic would have dictated an easy 45 minute straight-line drive to the east. Instead I drove three sides of a square for two and a half hours, capturing four new counties I would have missed otherwise: Wibaux, MT; Golden Valley, ND; Billings, ND and Stark, ND. Plus I got to visit the scenic badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. See how it worked?
That wasn’t even the most ridiculously contrived route, either. I think that honor went to day five when I drove between Chadron, Nebraska and the final race in Sterling, Colorado.
That little exercise converted a trip that should have lasted less than three hours into something extending nearly four and a half hours. However, I added four Nebraska counties that would have created a large doughnut hole otherwise: Sioux; Scotts Bluff; Banner and Kimball. The out-and-back portion also allowed me to visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site before returning to Scotts Bluff National Monument where I could cross additional county lines.
I also recorded several minor county milestone in the process.
- Counties, Plural. I have now been to counties — plural — in each of the 50 states. The fewest was Hawaii with two of five counties visited. I’m in the double digits for most states.
- Smallest of the Smallest: Wyoming had the fewest residents of any state during the 2010 Census, with a population of 563 thousand. Niobrara County had the fewest residents in Wyoming, with 2,484 people. Not only did I visit Niobrara, I stayed overnight in its county seat, Lusk. Granted there were counties in other states with smaller populations (e.g., Loving County, Texas with 82 residents). Still, I thought it was a memorable triviality to be in the least populated county in the least populated state.
- A Very Small Seat: We passed a curious sign as we drove south from the North Dakota badlands to the next race in Bowman, ND. Diminutive Amidon (map) perched along US Route 85 proclaimed itself to be the "Nation’s Smallest County Seat." Oh, and also North Dakota’s "Longest Running County Fair." I had to stop for a photo. Later I checked the claim. Wikipedia said Amidon was the smallest seat until 2010 when it was passed by Brewster, Nebraska population 17. Being the 2nd smallest seat didn’t bring the same glory, I guess, although the sign remained. At least Amidon still had the fair
Some 12MC readers recommended a visit to Carhenge since it would have fallen on the most direct route. I didn’t make it. Quite simply, county counting provided an explanation. Something had to give. I couldn’t leave any doughnut holes behind so Carhenge fell off the schedule.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
I returned from my much-anticipated Center of the Nation journey about a week ago. Those readers who followed the 12MC Twitter account already received a steady dose of foreshadowing about this event, a final installment of my 2015 Twelve Mile Circle "season of travel." I took a lot of great trips over the last several months. It will be nice to stay at home for awhile before as I plan the next set of adventures.
Early Morning Race in Bowman, North Dakota (map)
I faced a bit of a quandary. The entire premise of this adventure focused on my efforts to chauffeur a participant in Mainly Marathon’s Center of the Nation race series from site to site. There would be six running races (Marathon, Half-Marathon or 5K options; my participant chose Half-Marathon) in each of six states in six days; September 14-19. I’d spent very little time in the selected remote corners of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado so I was on-board with the concept immediately. I could pad my County Counting score while hopefully scrounging a handful of fascinating sites scattered amongst the desolate, empty terrain.
Traveling wasn’t the issue. Rather, I’d promised to avoid any further Center of Anything articles after I posted Centre of Australia way back in 2009. At that time I noted at least five major calculations plus several minor variations that could be used to determine the center, all producing different values. I threw my hands in the air and said, "any claims to being the centre of anything on a landmass would be somewhat bogus, more entertainment than science." I continue to stand by that statement. The United States could have a huge number of centers, one for each of the myriad mathematical models for the Lower 48 States and then again for the 48 States plus Alaska and Hawaii. Yikes!
Yet the whole inspiration for the races focused on their proximity to one of several supposed Centers. I had no choice but to revisit that topic.
You thought six races in six states in six days was crazy? Check out this climber I photographed scaling Devils Tower in Wyoming (map). We spotted several climbers, tiny little dots slowly working their way up the massive cylinder. The complete audacity of their extreme physical efforts could only be fully appreciated at the other end of a telephoto lens. I couldn’t even imagine how something so steep could be scaled.
Now back to the rest of the article…
The Fake Center
South Dakota’s race in Belle Fourche (pronounced FOOSH as I quickly learned) incorporated the Center of the Nation marker within its course, a nice touch I thought (map). The course began uphill at the Visitor Center, ran past the Center of the Nation marker amid flags from every state, and finally continued onward towards a path along the town’s Riverwalk.
It was clear that the central marker in Belle Fourche had been based upon the inclusion of all 50 US States — the center for the 48 contiguous states fell farther south and east in Kansas — and I understood the method of calculation thanks to the Center for Land Use Interpretation.
This was determined as the point at which an arc connecting the geographic center of the 49 states and the geographic center of Hawaii would balance. This point was established on the admittance of Hawaii into the Union, in 1959…
The spot had been determined and recognized by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey so it was as good as any Center of the Nation, and maybe better than most. However I’ve also engaged in a bit of deception. The actual spot wasn’t located in that attractive park along the gentle river flowing through Belle Fourche. As someone quoted in a 2008 New York Times article, "In the Middle of Nowhere, a Nation’s Center" explained, "We’re not pretending to be the actual center… We’re providing a convenience."
I’d agree, it was convenient.
The Real Center
I felt a natural compulsion to visit the real center, or at least the real center as defined by one of several possible calculations that also happened to included Alaska and Hawaii. It could be found about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche in a farmer’s field, with the last several miles down a dusty gravel road (map). I noticed a pickup truck parked at a pullout as I approached. I hadn’t seen another vehicle since I’d left the highway, and amazingly someone else happened to be visiting that obscure marker at the same time. I think we both displayed the same dumbstruck look, of awed fascination that somehow we weren’t alone in our pursuit of geo-oddities.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr