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.

Western North Carolina, Part 3 (Cherokee Loop)

On August 5, 2015 · 2 Comments

The second day-trip loop from Asheville plowed nearly due west onto the domain of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, and then continued into Great Smoky Mountains National Park for another easy U.S. state highpoint capture. I guess it was actually more of an out-and-back although one could cut the corner just a bit on the return trip with a brief yet scenic jaunt down the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Out-of-Place Scene

Cherokee North Carolina Casino
Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino
via Google Street View, April 2013

We rolled through pleasant countryside along serpentine roads, over hills and dipped into hollows as we followed U.S. Route 19 into the town of Cherokee. Something completely out of place loomed suddenly from the valley floor, not a mountain, rather a massive multi-story building with a huge parking garage. It was a resort hotel casino (map). I doubt there was a taller building anywhere closer than an hour away in Asheville. Here it stood probably fifteen stories high, an urban structure without a downtown.

I’m not a gambler so I never felt any temptation to answer its call. To me the most fascinating feature was the casino’s complete lack of context with all that surrounded it, like a giant middle finger to those who had mistreated the tribe since Europeans first landed on the continent and pushed into the mountains. North Carolina didn’t want casino gambling? Those laws didn’t apply here. I hope the Eastern Band makes a ton of money from their venture given how much they’ve been treated for the last couple of centuries… just not my money.

Oconaluftee Islands Park

Oconaluftee Islands Park

We’d been eating out a lot and visiting multiple brewpubs so we decided to do something a little bit different, a picnic lunch outdoors. I’d wondered if that might be possible as I examined Street View the previous day. The main strip seemed pretty touristy. Then I noticed a little green spot (map) while poking through online map sites and identified Oconaluftee Islands Park. That was just what we needed, a little oasis of nature and solitude surrounded on all sides by water, accessible only by footbridges. Children splashed and rode inflatable tubes down a lazy river, ducks and geese floated by, the wind rustled through a bamboo forest, and we enjoyed our respite at a shady picnic pavilion. The price was right too: FREE.

Cherokee Heritage

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The town of Cherokee served as the headquarters of the Eastern Band. Members of the nation were descendants of a small residual group of Cherokee that remained in North Carolina in the early 1800’s. They avoided the infamous Trail of Tears, however not without their own hardships. They were forced to renounce or hide their own culture for much of the Nineteenth Century, and spent the next hundred-plus years trying to revive it, a process that continues today. They also had to repurchase the land that rightfully belonged to them.

In North Carolina, those Cherokees who escaped removal either through a North Carolina provision called the Reservation Act of 1819 or by evading the United States Army remained behind in a land less state. By law, Native Americans were neither citizens of the United States nor the state where they resided therefore none could hold property… This ambiguous status continued until after the Civil War when the Cherokee question surfaced again. After several years of legal wrangling, the Cherokee formed a corporation. As a business, the Cherokee could hold the land and the land, which was to become known as the Qualla Boundary again, was in Cherokee control.

The entire history of the Cherokee people was explained in detail at the well-done Museum of the Cherokee Indian (map). It was a large facility and it took quite awhile to see everything in the level of detail it deserved. That took us longer than expected. Other sites nearby included the Qualla Arts & Crafts Center and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. I’d wanted to see both of those and we simply ran short on time. Most visitors would probably want to spend at least an entire day in Cherokee. We didn’t have that option because I had an important geo-oddity that required my attention.

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome

We’d reached the summit of North Carolina’s elevation highpoint the previous day. Now it was time to do the same thing for Tennessee at Clingmans Dome, (map), with an elevation of 6,643 feet (2,025 metres). I know what readers are thinking — this is supposed to be an article about western North Carolina, not Tennessee. If it makes anyone feel better, the Tennessee highpoint fell directly upon the boundary between the two states. The Clingmans Dome summit also served as the highpoint for Swain County, North Carolina. That could be used as a justification to maintain the sanctity of the article title. We were only ever a few feet across the border into Tennessee and only momentarily.

I expected this to be another easy highpoint directly within my lazy mountaineering ethos. It was crowded! I knew we were in trouble when I saw cars parked along the access road more than a half-mile away from the official parking lot. Clingmans Dome (map) fell within the confines of Great Smokey Mountains National Park which had 10 million visitors in 2014, making it one of the most popular properties in the entire National Parks system. It was summer. We arrive at the middle of the day. What else should we expect?

Proving the adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good, a parking space opened up directly in front of us, practically the best spot in the entire lot. Clearly a higher power wanted me to visit the highpoint, or more likely didn’t want to hear our kids whine because we were going to the spot even if we had to park all the way down the road and walk the extra distance by golly. I didn’t drive all the way out to a remote mountain and up to the top to turn around and head home. From there we trekked from parking lot to summit along with a few hundred of our new best friends, looped to the viewing platform and jostled through the crowds searching for the horizon. I much preferred the experience of North Carolina’s highpoint the previous day, shooing away swarms of insects instead of people. The Tennessee highpoint would be best appreciated during the off-season.

Western North Carolina articles:

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