I thought I’d lump another set of somewhat related items together as I continued to cull the enormous backlog of possible Twelve Mile Circle topics. They didn’t have much in common except that they all involved continental Africa. Two were geographical observations and two were geological oddities. All of them piqued my interest although not enough to devote an entire article to them.
Most of us have probably seen the recent comparison-style maps on the Intertubes lately, some demonstrating Africa’s immense size. Brilliant Maps, for example, had a wonderful portrayal of the True Size of Africa in an article a few months ago. People tended to misconstrue Africa’s enormity, probably due to its under-representation in popular media combined with Mercator map projections that distorted its actual size. Twelve Mile Circle fell into some of those same traps as witnessed by the relatively few African article markers on the Complete Index page.
In that vein, I pondered Africa’s enormity in a slightly different manner using great-circle distances. And what better measure of great-circle distance could I generate than airline flights? One could take a direct nonstop flight from Lagos, Nigeria to Nairobi, Kenya (currently 7 flights per week on Kenya Airlines) and ponder its width. That would carry a traveler from west to east across the continent, not even its widest part, and it would take 5 hours and 20 minutes. That compared pretty nicely with a flight from New York to San Francisco across the width of the United States; or from London, England to Ankara, Turkey.
Looking at length, one could then take a nonstop flight from O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt (4 flights per week on EgyptAir) in 8 hours, or alternately to Dakar, Senegal (3 flights per week on South African Airways) in 8.5 hours. That compared rather favorably with a flight between Chicago, Illinois and Paris, France. Of course, an entire ocean didn’t have to be crossed on any of those African flights. That, to me, demonstrated its vast expanse quite succinctly.
Plus, now I get to see all sorts of interesting advertisements on my website now that Big Data thinks I’m contemplating so many far-flung adventures.
Extreme Elevation (or Lack Thereof)
Gambie by Guillaume Colin & Pauline Penot on Flickr (cc)
Africa demonstrated many extremes, although not in every instance. Certainly a landmass of its size featured an array of elevations, from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (5,895 metres / 19,341 feet) down to Lake Assal in Djibouti (-153 m / -502 ft). I wondered though, which African nation had the smallest elevation extremes. I discounted the various offshore islands that were considered part of Africa and focused on the continent itself. The honor went to The Gambia. I featured Unusual Geography of the Republic of The Gambia in the very early days of 12MC and even commented on its elevation. What I didn’t note at the time was that its greatest "peak" (53 m / 174 f) was also the lowest national highpoint on the continent.
The website Peakbagger included this highpoint in its database, a place called Red Rock (map). Only one Peakbagger member claimed to have conquered its summit. I wasn’t surprised.
The continent also served as a home for what National Geographic dubbed the Strangest Volcano on Earth. The Ol Doinyo Lengai stratovolcano in the Gregory Rift of the larger East African Rift of Tanzania (map) was well known to vulcanologists for its unique properties. It was the only active volcano that was known to produce natrocarbonatite lava. The lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai wasn’t based on silica as was typical, rather it was composed of sodium and potassium carbonate minerals.
…the temperatures of these lavas are much lower, "only" about 600 deg. C., and Lengai’s lava does not emit enough light to glow during day,- only at night, a dull reddish glow that does not illuminate anything is visible. Also because of its peculiar chemical composition, the lava is extremely fluid and behaves very much like water, with the exception that it is black like oil. After it is cooled down it quickly alters and becomes a whitish powder.
Black water lava? I’d love to see some of that in person. I may have to settle for the YouTube video for now.
In the distant ancient history of the planet, something like two billion years ago, an asteroid slammed into the earth leaving an impact crater 300 kilometres (185 miles) across. The asteroid was much smaller than that, maybe 5-10 km in diameter, although it hit with such tremendous speed and force that it vaporized stone for great distances in all directions. This celestial divot was called the Vredefort crater — named for the South African settlement that grew there in modern times — the largest verified crater on the planet.
Very few signs remained because of its ancient pedigree, leaving it mostly eroded. A structure known as the Vredefort Dome sprouted at impact, an uplifting of rock that occurred at the very center of the strike. It was mostly weathered away too although it still appeared as a faint semi-circle on satellite images. A few roads also crossed its ridges, making it an interesting sight in Google Street View (image).
The thought of an impact that large seemed terrifying.
Twelve Mile Circle has been on a bit of an odd placenames fixation as of late. I found a few more examples although they didn’t have enough of a story behind them to justify an entire article on any one of them. I figured I’d resurrect an earlier series and title this "Even More Weird Placenames" in continuation of the theme. This will also help me whittle-down my ever persistent list of possible topics I’ve been compiling since I began this site.
A anonymous 12MC visitor landed onto the site by chance seeking information about Knockemstiff. I didn’t know anything about it and had nothing prepared so I supposed they left disappointed. Even so, it sounded like a suitable topic and I knew I’d explore it eventually. It took little effort to find Knockemstiff once I got around to it, a crossroads in Ohio near another place featured on these pages previously, Chillicothe.
Knockemstiff served as the backdrop for a series of short stories published in 2008 by local writer, Donald Ray Pollock, in a book with the same title. One review said Pollock "presents his characters and the sordid goings-on with a stern intelligence, a bracing absence of value judgments, and a refreshingly dark sense of bottom-dog humor." His literary works received national attention including the New York Times which profiled the settlement of Knockemstiff, attempting to learn the story behind its unusual alias.
The town’s name is a source of folklore and conjecture… a resident saying that the origins dated far back, perhaps 100 years, to an episode in which a traveling preacher came across two women fighting over a man. The preacher said that he doubted the man was worth the trouble and that someone should "knock him stiff." But variations on that story exist, as do ones that say the name is associated with moonshine and bar fights.
That was a long way of saying that no definitive explanation existed. The story had been lost to history. Nonetheless this brief summary will be waiting here for the next unknown visitor who may stumble onto 12MC searching for Knockemstiff.
The City of Ennis fell within the confines of Ellis County, Texas. Ennis had been named for a railroad official, Cornelius Ennis. Ellis probably referred to Richard Ellis, who headed the commission that declared Texas’ independence. The two men had no connection or relationship that I was aware of, although that was completely irrelevant to this story anyway. My fascination centered on the peculiar notion that if one replaced the “nn” in Ennis with “ll” it became Ellis. I was unaware of any other town-county combination where one could make a simple letter substitution in the town’s name to transform it into the county name. Of course I didn’t look too hard trying to find other examples either. I’d like to say that I wanted to reserve that puzzle for the 12MC audience although the real reason was my laziness.
Completely unrelated, the aforementioned Ennis in Ellis "was designated by the 1997 State Legislature as the home of the ‘Official Texas Bluebonnet Trail’ and was designated the ‘Official Bluebonnet City of Texas.‘" That was a pretty big deal considering the prominence of the bluebonnet in Texan culture. The Department of Horticultural Science at Texas A&M University elaborated,
As historian Jack Maguire so aptly wrote, "It’s not only the state flower but also a kind of floral trademark almost as well known to outsiders as cowboy boots and the Stetson hat." He goes on to affirm that "The bluebonnet is to Texas what the shamrock is to Ireland, the cherry blossom to Japan, the lily to France, the rose to England and the tulip to Holland."
During times when bluebonnets weren’t in bloom, no worries, one could always visit Bluebonnet Trail — not the trail itself, rather a street named Bluebonnet Trail — in a local trailer park (map).
I’m sure if I thought long and hard enough I could figure out a few similarities between Brazil and Indiana. Nonetheless I still found it strange to see a town named Brazil in Indiana (map). It wasn’t a small place either. It had eight thousand residents and served as the seat of local government in Clay County. I wished I could have found a decent explanation. Several sources pointed back to the naming of a local farm in the 1840’s, designated Brazil because the nation had been in the news frequently during the era, supposedly. The town then adopted the name of the nearby farm when it was founded in the 1860’s. I guess I could accept that even though I couldn’t find any solid attribution. I’ve heard of stranger explanations for town names.
I didn’t know what to make of High Point in Palm Beach County, Florida, except that I wished I’d known about it when I wrote High Level some time ago. What point of High Point was actually high? It’s total elevation barely broached 20 feet (6 metres). It wasn’t even the highest point in Palm Beach, where two separate spots reached pinnacles of 53 feet (16 metres) according to the County Highpointers Association. I realized those two co-highpoints didn’t have magnificent summits either, although 53 feet completely dominated 20 feet. I guess it didn’t matter. High Point and its condominium community were in the process of being annexed by the nearby city of Delray Beach, anyway. The name will probably disappear.
I’m working out the details for a short trip in March, a county counting adventure, although I haven’t determined all of the details yet and I’m not quite ready to share the objective. I’ll hit a personal milestone if everything works out as planned so I have plenty of motivation. Part of the drive will push me deep into Appalachia, into the wilds of southern West Virginia. Eyeing potential routes, I noticed an interesting geographic feature.
Big Ugly Wildlife Management Area? That sounded too good to be true. What kind of big ugly wildlife might one see there? The website described "deer, grouse, raccoon, squirrel, [and] turkey" in a setting "steep with mature upland hardwood forest." Are you thinking what I’m thinking? BIG and UGLY animals in the mountains conjured images of Sasquatch and Hairy Man a lot more than grouse and squirrels. That couldn’t be right. Something else must have happened over there to cause the name. Either way, I probably won’t get a chance to star in my own episode of Finding Bigfoot.
Indeed, Big Ugly referred to a local creek.
Big Ugly had been around for a long time. Internet book searches found results going back to the 1840’s, when West Virginia was still part of Virginia. This wasn’t simply a big ugly creek, it was an old ugly. The creek formed a tributary of the Guyandotte River which in turn flowed into the Ohio River, onward to the Mississippi River and eventually down to the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy except for its unusual name, stretching no more than twenty miles (32 kilometres). Nobody really knew how Big Ugly Creek got its name, either. There was a little weak speculation that maybe it had been named for an ugly settler or maybe in recognition of its twisted shape, although citations never materialized. We will probably never know exactly what might have been considered big or ugly to early Nineteenth Century settlers. That was a shame.
Also, I wasn’t the first person to enjoy Big Ugly references. The Intertubes developed a natural way of gathering unusual place names like that. One reference stated that, "I live very close to Big Ugly State Park in West Virginia. Honest headline from local newspaper, ‘Big Ugly Woman Killed’." Another site mentioned Big Ugly as "one of those place names newspaper columnists grab on a slow news day." Every day was a slow news day on Twelve Mile Circle so I didn’t mind referencing Big Ugly one bit. The difference 12MC brought to the discussion, I believed, was a deeper appreciation of the geography and history than the typical site that simply referenced the humor.
For instance, I admired the Big Ugly Community Center (map)
When Big Ugly Elementary School closed in the mid-1990s, this small, isolated, Lincoln County community lost the one thing that held them together… The county school board was persuaded to turn over the property to the community… It is the only public building within a 30 minute drive in any direction. The building returned to its place at the heart of the community. It hosts gatherings, and provides many services for children including The Big Ugly afterschool program, which is one of the longest running in the state. It offers summer camps, runs greenhouses, and hosts arts programming. Their library program gives away 5,000 books each year and the ‘Grow Appalachia’ gardening project produced 4,000 plants and 24,000 pounds of vegetables in 2014.
According to the video, Big Ugly was the poorest census tract in one of the most disadvantaged counties in West Virginia. A full 98% of children attending the center were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. What they’ve been able to accomplish at Big Ugly with very few resources was remarkable. They earned a Governor’s Service Award for their efforts in 2015.
Large chunks of Appalachian have been stripped to the bone for coal, a process called mountaintop removal mining. That’s exactly what happened on a massive scale immediately north and east of Big Ugly Creek and its wildlife preserve and its community center. The Hobet 21 coal mine quickly became the largest in West Virginia — which was saying something pretty remarkable — as it stretched almost fifteen miles (24 km) over the hills and hollows. Mountains were flattened and debris pushed to the side to create valley fills obliterating all traces of earlier terrain. It also created a string of environmental violations and water pollution problems.