The Year in Geo-Adventures

On December 30, 2015 · 3 Comments

The final article of 2015 felt like an appropriate time to reflect upon my personal geographic sightseeing adventures during the past year. I accomplished a lot in 2015, more than typical, and I recalled my travels fondly. Plus I figured that readership always dropped way off during the slow week between Christmas and New Years so it didn’t really matter what I published. This seemed as good a time as any for a clip show where I could take a little mental break while offering an opportunity to wax nostalgic and share a few favorite photos. All images in this article were my own for once.

Great Allegheny Passage

Mason & Dixon LIne
Mason & Dixon Line

It seemed like ages ago when I climbed atop my bicycle and set off on a 150 mile ride (240 kilometres) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland with a couple of friends. I kept reminding myself that it was only last April. The quest seemed daunting although we spread it over multiple days, and we pedaled a nice, easy pace. The Great Allegheny Passage trail followed rivers for the most part, the Monongahela, Youghiogheny and Casselman, pushing through mountainous valleys and woodlands. The passage also crossed a couple of notable geographic features including the Mason & Dixon Line at the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and the Eastern Continental Divide (photo) where water flowed either to the Atlantic Ocean or to the Gulf of Mexico.

Cape Cod and Nearby

Plymouth Rock
Plymouth Rock

Geo-oddities weren’t a primary objective of my adventures along Cape Cod and Nearby although I supposed the closest object that fit the definition might have been Plymouth Rock. I’ve talked before about its dubious historical claim and its underwhelming presence. Still, it was Plymouth Rock for cryin’ out loud. That counted for something. A large glacial erratic known as Doan Rock (photo), perhaps the largest Ice Age wanderer on Cape Cod, actually impressed me more. The trip wasn’t a total geographic bust by any means. I did manage to snag several new counties including two requiring ferries (Nantucket and Dukes) and I finished the remaining counties in Rhode Island.

Oh, and I also experienced a lot of great stuff that had nothing to do with geography.

Western North Carolina

Mount Mitchell
North Carolina Highpoint

Some journeys seemed to lend themselves better to collecting notable geographic peculiarities. For me, that wonderful confluence of events happened naturally during July’s trip to western North Carolina. I captured two new state highpoints, Mount Mitchell in North Carolina and Clingmans Dome in Tennessee. Neither required anything special beyond minimal "climbing" from parking lots near their respective summits. That was a real bonus for someone of my sluggish tendencies. I also ate lunch at Famous Louise’s Rock House Restaurant that may or may not have actually straddled three county lines simultaneously (photo).

Yes, of course I realized I strayed across the border into Tennessee so it wasn’t technically a trip dedicated solely to western North Carolina. In my defense, the boundary between the states cut directly through the summit of Clingmans Dome. The mountain was tall enough to be considered Tennessee’s highpoint although not for North Carolina. Mount Mitchell reached 41 feet (12 metres) higher than Clingmans Dome and it was also the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. I needed to visit both of them.

Really? I didn’t actually need to visit both of them, and I probably wouldn’t have if they’d been more troublesome.

Center of the Nation

Center of the Nation
Center of the Nation, north of Belle Fourche, SD

Naturally I’d expected something particularly significant from a Mainly Marathons event named specifically for a geographic feature. The Center of the Nation adventure didn’t disappoint. Indeed, I was able to experience one of the more notable "centers of the nation" in South Dakota which tend to vary depending on how one defined center. I also saw a completely false center established at a more accessible location a few miles away at a park in the town of Belle Fourche (photo) just for good luck. If that weren’t enough I then drove through the nation’s smallest county seat of Amidon, North Dakota (photo) although it had been eclipsed recently by an even smaller county seat in Nebraska.

County Counting

Green Lake County Line
Collecting my final county of 2015

I had a banner year for County Counting in 2015. I don’t recall exactly how many new counties I added and I’m too lazy to figure it out although a quick scan led me to believe it was probably somewhere around fifty. My travels were good enough to bring my lifetime total up to 1,302, or 41.4% of counties in the United States. The final capture of the year happened only a few days ago. I had to get out of the house for a couple of hours while visiting the in-laws in Wisconsin. I actually have great in-laws — that wasn’t the problem — I still needed to wander somewhere after sitting around the house for five days. You know how that goes. I drove just far enough to cross the border into a doughnut hole county that had been tormenting me for several years. Green Lake County, you were mine!

Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael

The final geographic moment actually didn’t happen this year, it happened in 2014 when I visited Ireland. However it made its screen debut in December 2015 so I counted it as an achievement for the current year. We’d traveled to remote Skellig Michael (map), a rocky islet jutting from the sea a few kilometres from the southwestern edge of the Irish mainland. That same spot was visited coincidentally by a filming crew for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens a few weeks later. Skellig Michael appeared in the movie when it was released a year and a half later.

I won’t provide any spoilers for the one or two 12MC readers who may not have seen the movie. However, I will note that Skellig Michael served as the setting for the very final scene at the end of the movie (and will likely appear again at the beginning of its sequel). I marveled at how the crew managed film around thousands of puffins that made the island home because those birds were literally everywhere. Viewers can see scattered puffins flying around on a few shots in the distant background of the movie, and I swear I spotted at least one puffin burrow that the editors somehow missed although I couldn’t be sure. I’ll have to look more carefully the next time I watch it.


On November 11, 2015 · 12 Comments

I thought I’d sliced-and-diced my county counting exploits in every way imaginable by the time I posted Counting Down, my account of barely crossed and airport only captures. Loyal reader and fellow county counter Andy begged to differ. He discovered one more dimension when he noted, "Probably 99% of what you or I color in on the map has been driven over or flown into, even if we got out of the car to touch ground with our own feet. But — have you visited any counties /only/ on foot?" On foot, eh? Now that was something I’d never considered.

I knew it couldn’t be very many instances. I’ve lived a pretty sedentary life devoid of strenuous hikes over vast distances. Friend-of-12MC Steve from (formerly Connecticut Museum Quest and now much more broadly focused) once completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I created an article on counties he’d hiked through hoping he’d pick up the county counting hobby, although it just wasn’t his thing. I’m sure Steve drove through a few of the 87 AT Trail counties on other journeys although I’d also guess that his "only-on-foot" tally would be substantial. Mine, not so much.

San Juan County, Utah

4 Corners
Four Corners – Summer 1992.
Utah, Colorado, New Mexico & Arizona come together at a single point

I think I have two only-on-foot counties. One for sure. That would be San Juan County which was Utah’s contribution to the sole state quadripoint of the United States, Four Corners. Notice my right foot touching said county in the photograph above from a long-ago road trip. I circled around the marker any number of times, traveling through that tiny bit of Utah on foot each time.

Four Corners

I had confidence in my memory although I consulted maps extensively to confirm it. Apparently I drove on all sides of San Juan Co. without actually crossing the border except on foot at the Four Corners marker. Even the road leading up to the marker remained completely outside of Utah. So that’s ONE. Absolutely.

Nantucket County, Massachusetts

Cisco Brewers
Visiting Cisco Brewery.
That is NOT the pedaled vehicle we used.

Might it be possible to bend the rules a little? I’d have a second example from one of my more recent travels if that wish were granted. Massachusetts’ island of Nantucket fell within its own county. I never used a motorized vehicle anywhere on Nantucket. However, we rented bicycles and pedaled a few miles into the countryside to the Cisco Brewery for an afternoon of tastings and entertainment during our stay (map). I think I deserved at least partial credit or an honorable mention for getting everywhere on Nantucket under my own personal muscle power.

Incidentally I couldn’t make the same claim a day earlier in Dukes County (Martha’s Vineyard, primarily). We rented a car in Oak Bluffs and drove all over the island.

Municipio de Juárez, Chihuahua, México

Av Juarez to S El Paso Crossing
Av Juarez to S El Paso Crossing by Aquistbe on Flickr (cc)

I wondered if I could expand the game into foreign countries. I’ve been to México twice, neither time using engine power so I felt I might meet the rules for an entire nation. It involved two separate Mexican states so I should also get credit for Chihuahua and Coahuila. However I decided to focus on counties for this exercise, or in this instance their Mexican equivalents, municipalities (municipios).

Several years ago on a business trip to El Paso, Texas, a group of us decided to walk across the bridge into Juárez (map). The smarter bunch hopped into a taxi as soon as they crossed the border and went to a restaurant in a nicer part of town. Others, myself included, just sort-of milled around the border area checking out the scene. I thought it was pretty seedy, with a bunch of shops selling liquor and discount drugs that would need prescriptions back in the United States. I lasted about ten minutes before I grew bored and walked back into the U.S., although apparently it added Municipio de Juárez to my very short only-on-foot list.

Municipio de Ocampo, Coahuila, México

Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, Mexico
Boquillas… and the burro I rode in on

How about an even better rule bender than Nantucket? Several years ago I wrote about my technically illegal (albeit tolerated) dodge across the border into México while visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas. I visited tiny Boquillas del Carmen (map) in Municipio de Ocampo. I never used a motorized vehicle during that visit although I didn’t remain entirely on foot either. I rode a burro into town after disembarking a rowboat that ferried me across the border. Yes, a burro. I’m fairly certain it was the only time I’ve even ridden a burro. I should get double points for that effort.


Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls. My Own Photo.

I couldn’t think of any other examples. I’ve traveled into Canada using seven different border stations. For a moment I thought I might be able to claim the Regional Municipality of Niagara in Ontario because I walked across the border from New York for a better view of the falls. Then I remembered I drove up to Toronto on a different trip and would have passed through the same municipality by automobile. No dice. I also looked at my travels to Europe, Asia and Australia and found nothing.

The final tally in the United States: one county solely on foot; one on foot and bicycle. In México, one municipio solely on foot; one on foot and burro.

More Endorheic in Europe

On November 1, 2015 · 1 Comments

I have a mild obsession with endorheic basins, those magical places where where water flows into them and never flows out except through evaporation. They’ve appeared several times on the pages of Twelve Mile Circle over the years. I’ve even discussed an example in Europe before, Lake Neusiedl on the border between Austria and Hungary. There were a few more of those special spots in Europe with similar properties so I decided to take a moment to explore them vicariously. None of them were particularly large although they fascinated me nonetheless since Europe wasn’t generally known for having endorheic basins. Each of them also seemed to be noteworthy in a way completely distinct from their unusual lack of drainage.

Lake Trasimeno, Italy

isola maggiore
isola maggiore by Olga e Zanni via Flickr (cc)

Italy’s Lake Trasimeno (Lago Trasimeno) was the largest of the latest set I examined, with a surface area of 128 square kilometres (49.4 square miles). That made it big enough to be Italy’s fourth largest lake. It formed in the region of Umbria, about as far as one could get from a coastline in the middle of the long Italian leg. The lake had been part of a shallow sea three million years ago, created in a depression formed by fractures in the underlying stone. It retained that shallow shape in modern times with an average depth of only about five metres. However, Lake Trasimeno varied greatly in size and depth based on cycles of rainfall and evaporation, expanding and retracting dramatically at times.

To me, the most fascinating aspect wasn’t so much the lake as the three islands set upon the lake. Medieval inhabitants used this topography to create protected spaces with a picturesque, natural moat. One of the islands, Isola Maggiore (map), included a village with a large Franciscan monastery. It was noted by many sources that St. Francis of Assisi lived as a hermit on Isola Maggiore for 40 days during Lent, possibly in the year 1211, when it was uninhabited. A few people still live on the island today, albeit with regular ferry service and a steady stream of tourists connecting it to the outside world.

Lake of Banyoles, Spain

Another endorheic basin developed in Catalonia, Spain. Lake of Banyoles (Estany de Banyoles) formed next to a geological fault line (map). The Catalan version of Wikipedia had a rather detailed explanation. It was essentially sandwiched between an area of porous karst limestone on one side and a layer of waterproof stone on the other that blocked any outward flow. Unlike Lake Trasimeno, the primary source of water for Lake of Banyoles could be traced to the local aquifer. Water flowed easily into the lake through porous karst, thus replenishing water lost through evaporation in a reliable manner, and keeping lake levels relatively stable. Man-made canals were added to drain swampy areas and create a spillway for times of particularly heavy rainfall. Technically, I supposed, that converted Lake of Banyoles into something not quite completely endorheic since it drained to the nearby Terri River at times. I still kept it on the list.

Even though it was the largest lake in Catalonia, Lake of Banyoles was still pretty small and covered an area of only about 1.12 km2 (0.43 sq mi). Nonetheless it formed in a long, skinny manner making it absolutely perfect for the sport of rowing. Many rowing championships have been held on the placid waters of Lake of Banyoles in recent decades including all fourteen of the rowing events for the 1992 summer Olympics based in Barcelona. The video, for example, showed the medal round held on the lake for the Men’s Coxless Pair competition. Great Britain won the gold medal. My juvenile sense of humor found the phrase "Men’s Coxless Pair" to be slightly amusing. I should probably move on to the next section before it crosses over a line into something distasteful.

Lasithi Plateau, Greece

view from Zeus's Cave, Lassithi Plateau, Crete, October 2012
view from Zeus's Cave, Lassithi Plateau, Crete, October 2012 by alljengi on Flickr (cc)

The final spot I examined didn’t include a catchment area large enough to produce a lake. Nonetheless the Lasithi Plateau on the Greek island of Crete was a fertile valley with a long history of settlement, with sufficient rainfall and snow melt to support a steady population. I found it particularly fascinating that an endorheic basin emerged on an island, and yet there it was covering a good 18 km2 (48 sq mi), hemmed in on all sides by mountains.

The adjacent mountain caves actually attracted my attention more than the plateau itself. One in particular near the village of Psychro was called Diktaion Andron, or Diktaean or Dikteon or other variations (map). Its spectacular formations were known to Neolithic people and later it became a sacred place of worship and sanctuary during the Minoan period. Greek mythology held that the god Zeus was born in this cave. That gave a pretty good indication of the prominence Diktaion Andron held for the people of that time. It pleased me that Zeus would have been born next to a geo-oddity.

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