I revisited an old concept from a much earlier version of Twelve Mile Circle, the simple pleasure of wandering aimlessly through Google Street View. That’s something I used to enjoy regularly. However, life got busier and other priorities mostly prevented that luxury in recent years. They still do, although I needed to clear my mind of a million other things as the holidays approached. A couple of hours traveling vicariously online did the trick. Plus I found some interesting places.
Google Street View covered territory in many nations albeit with notable exceptions. I wanted a closer look at mysterious Myanmar (Burma) as an example, because it remained under tight control until only recently. However Street View hadn’t arrived there yet. Then I wondered if I could peer across the border from its neighbors. I began with Bangladesh. It shared a brief border with Myanmar although only a single road featured Street View coverage along the way. The road extended to the end of the Teknaf Peninsula. Naturally I lost all interest in Myanmar and fixated on that little road running to the farthest southern point of the Bangladeshi mainland.
What a road! It turned out to be a perfect place to meander, a great place for people watching. Humanity seemed to be everywhere as I followed along the Street View path. People gathered in every small patch of open space. Impossibly small roadside shops sold necessities. Animals wandered freely. I compared that with the average Western town where people hid in their homes, where public appearances limited themselves to automobiles.
In this corner of Bangladesh, the vehicle of choice seemed to be a 3-wheeled motorized rickshaw. Others made do with motorcycles, bicycles or even their own feet. A hive of activity hugged both sides of the narrow path. The Street View car must have created quite a commotion as it passed. Even so, the modern world extended all the way down here to the end of the line. A mobile phone tower in the background implied Internet connectivity. I can always hope for a 12MC visitor from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Division someday. I’ll need to think of a suitable prize.
The terrain seemed extremely flat too, and perilously close to the Bay of Bengal. I wouldn’t want to be around there during Monsoon Season.
Where would people go when the water rose? That wasn’t idle speculation. Historically floods bedeviled Bangladesh. A 1998 deluge submerged 100,000 square kilometres (38,000 square miles), forcing 25 million people from their homes. I wondered, did Bangladesh even have land high enough to avoid rising waters? Obviously it had a highpoint. Was it good enough?
The nation actually contained a mountainous region along it border with Myanmar, much to my surprise. The hills didn’t encompass a lot of Bangladesh although they certainly existed. Oddly, Bangladesh didn’t have a recognized highpoint because nobody ever bothered to measure it officially. Many geographers believed the honor went to Saka Haphong in the Mowdok range (map). It reached 1,052 metres (3,451 feet) unofficially. After I got over the shock of learning that nobody really knew the highpoint of an entire nation, I figured I’d head towards Saka Haphong should I ever find myself in Bangladesh during a monsoon.
Dirt Road Super-Highway
China didn’t have Street View either although neighboring Mongolia had a little. I followed the same process and got the same result: interesting views of Mongolia sidetracked my attempts to peer into China.
I meant "interesting" as an appreciation of its scenery completely wide-open and devoid of any features whatsoever. It reminded me of the Big Sky of eastern Montana in the United States, although amplified by an order of magnitude or two. I could almost imagine Genghis Khan galloping across the steppe on horseback with his hordes.
Looking to the horizon in any direction I saw nothing, simply nothing. Just two sets of dirt tracks across grassy fields in Mongolia’s Dornogovi province. I’ve experienced many dirt roads in my life. However, I’ve never seen one with TWO tracks. That implied sufficient traffic and speed to justify separate lanes. That seemed crazy. With vehicles stirring up easily-visible dust storms as they drove, with lines of sight across an endless horizon, with almost zero population or vehicles, with plenty of room to pull over and let occasional traffic pass, who would ever need to worry about a driver coming in the opposite direction? Yet, apparently it was necessary.
Every trip seemed to end too quickly. We soon hit the final leg of our northern West Virginia odyssey and headed home. Two uncaptured counties remained on the itinerary, Taylor and Tucker. They formed doughnut holes on my map and they needed to be removed. Oh, how I hated those little white splotches. That completely irrational itch directed my motivation during the waning hours.
This also set a course for an amazing array of roadside attractions and geo-oddities. They clustered near a spot where West Virginia met the southwestern corner of Maryland’s westernmost county. That would be the "Middle of Nowhere" in layman’s terms.
Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church sat just south of Silver Lake, West Virginia (map). Who could possibly pass up an opportunity to see the "Smallest Church in 48 States?" Lots of people probably, although not me and not on this day. I’ve always been a sucker for oddball attractions.
It definitely fit the definition of small, measuring only 12 by 24 feet (3.6 X 7.3 metres). The interior made room for about a dozen parishioners plus an officiant. It even featured a complete Stations of the Cross with each station separated by barely a few inches. The caretakers deserved credit for creating an inspirational space on such a tiny scale.
I wondered about the 48 states. A plaque on an exterior wall provided a possible explanation: Mr. and Mrs. P. L. Milkint dedicated Our Lady of the Pines to the memory of their parents in 1958. That predated statehood for Alaska and Hawaii so maybe they never updated their claim when the number of states changed. Did it hold water? Not even close. Many houses of worship made similar boasts and several existed within smaller footprints. Nonetheless, it was a very small church in a gorgeous setting along our direct path and certainly deserved a stop.
Smallest Mailing Office?
Besides, Our Lady of Pines features a bonus attraction. Just behind it stood the "World’s Smallest Mailing Office." I went inside. It featured a service window and a number of personal mailboxes, a mail slot and everything else one would expected in a post office all stuffed into a compact space (photo). However, it didn’t register as the smallest postal facility even in the United States. That honor fell to Ochopee, Florida as described in an earlier Twelve Mile Circle article, Going Postal.
I think Mr. and Mrs. P. L. Milkint simply liked to build miniature structures. I could appreciate that. People might not stop if the sign simply said "smallish church and post office."
Less than a mile farther south on US Route 219, the highway shoulder widened where a sign marked a trailhead. We were in West Virginia, however the trail lead to the Maryland highpoint at Hoye-Crest, 3,360 feet (1,020 m). Oddly, the greatest elevation in Maryland could be approached best from a neighboring state. The path followed old logging roads across private property to the top of Backbone Mountain, then followed the ridge into Maryland to the highpoint (map). It wasn’t particularly arduous, rising about 700 vertical feet (215 m) over the mile-long trek. I prefer drive-up highpoints because I’m lazy and even so I didn’t have any trouble with this one.
Backbone Mountain hid a couple of additional features worth noting. The Eastern Continental Divide ran directly along the ridge. A glass of water poured there would flow either towards the Youghiogheny River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico or towards the North Branch of the Potomac River and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. Also the border between West Virginia and Maryland bisected the ridge so we visited Border Marker No. 3 along the trail (photo).
I still didn’t count myself as an official Highpointer although I’ve managed to visit a few of the easier ones. The list at this point included Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia.
Just a few miles farther south down the road appeared the entrance to Fairfax Stone State Park. King Charles II bestowed a substantial land grant reaching out to here in 1649. He defined a western boundary running from the headwaters of the Potomac River to the headwaters of the Rappahannock River in what was then the colony of Virginia. Nobody bothered to survey the line for another century because of its extreme isolation. Eventually ownership passed to Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax, who decided to mark his domain in 1746. He commissioned Peter Jefferson, father of future president Thomas Jefferson, to set a line between those points.
Jefferson’s marker on the North Branch of the Potomac came to be known as the Fairfax Stone, the source of the Potomac watershed. Later, others determined that the South Branch was actually the true source of the river although boundaries were already set by then. The Fairfax Stone remained (and still remains) the key marker. The state of West Virginia called it "as near as anything to being a cornerstone of the entire state."
The Fairfax Stone also figured prominently in a US Supreme Court case, Maryland v. West Virginia 217 U.S. 1 (1910). It defined the longitudinal separation between the states. Ironically the stone — actually a replacement because vandals destroyed the original — no longer touched Maryland. The North Branch took a brief western jog at the stone. Maryland began about a mile farther north after the court decision, where the river curved back to the east and crossed the appropriate line of longitude (map). It still marked the Grant, Preston, Tucker County tripoint in West Virginia, though.
A Growing Appreciation
Before I started counting counties in earnest I’d only been to the outskirts of West Virginia along with a couple of whitewater rafting trips. Since then I’ve completed four specific trips nibbling away at places I’d not yet visited. I’ve come to enjoy the state’s mountainous terrain, hidden corners and gracious people. More than anything, these trips allowed me to look past hillbilly stereotypes to appreciate the state on its own merits. That’s what traveling is all about. I do plan to continue returning to West Virginia even after I finish the final swatch and capture its remaining counties.
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.
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.