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
Nearby I spotted an automobile with a Nebraska license plate, or more properly a "vehicle registration plate" I supposed. That wasn’t an everyday occurrence here in the Mid-Atlantic more than 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometres) from that Midwestern state. Often I’ve wondered what would bring a driver such a long distance from his home after I’ve spotted such an unusual plate. In the Washington, DC area it was generally someone serving in the military at one of the many local bases, although now I’ve started going down a tangent. Back to the point, it reminded me of one particularly fascinating feature of Nebraska’s plates, that they traditionally contained not-so-secret geographic codes within the identification scheme. That beautiful pattern began to break down in recent years and I’ll get to that in a moment.
NEBRASKA 1954 and 1965 —TRAILER LICENSE plates by Jerry “Woody” on Flickr (cc)
One could, and to a degree can determine the county where the driver lived when the vehicle was first registered. The state began issuing county-coded plates in 1922 and fixed its pattern on the current population. All plates issued within the most populous county began with with the number 1 and so on down to the 93rd county. The current enumeration at that time was the 1920 Census so Douglas County grabbed number 1 with with 204,524 residents. That made sense. The city of Omaha fell within Douglas County and it had a lot of people. Number 2 went to Lancaster County with 85,902 residents. Again, that made sense. Lancaster contained Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, and naturally it had a lot of people too. The pattern continued all the way down to remote Hooker County with a mere 1,378 residents in 1920, designated thereafter with the number 93. Interestingly enough, that was the largest population Hooker County ever had; there were only 736 people living there in 2010.
Thus, in the image of the vintage Nebraska license plates displayed above, one could surmise that the top plate would have been registered to a vehicle in Douglas County (1) and the lower plate would have come from Keith County (68) towards the western side of the state.
Omaha by Pat Hawks on Flickr (cc)
I’ve never lived in Nebraska although I spent significant time there for maybe a five year period ending about a dozen years ago. I got pretty good at memorizing the license plate codes for counties surrounding Omaha because I’d see them fairly regularly. That’s why I was sad to hear about changes to the system as I researched this article. The system was already starting to break down because of specialty plates (a new one was announced just a few days ago to mark the state’s sesquicentennial) and personalized plates. However I’d stumbled upon a more direct assault, Nebraska Revised Statute 60-370.
I guess one could blame Nebraska’s growing popularity, particularly along the expanding edges of Omaha and Lincoln. Reserving the first digit for a 1 or a 2 would limited the number of unique combinations available on the rest of the plate. Plus there was Sarpy County to further complicate the situation. It’s diminutive 1920’s population earned Sarpy a lowly 59 on the list. It’s become a booming Omaha suburb in recent decades, growing at a 20% pace, with nearly a hundred and sixty thousand residents by 2010. Sarpy more than anything else blew the entire basis of the old code to pieces. The third most populated county in the state still had code 59.
The statute was revised to read:
… registration of motor vehicles or trailers in counties having a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants or more according to the most recent federal decennial census shall be by an alphanumeric system rather than by the county number system.
Certainly, the vast preponderance of Nebraska counties by number retained their geographic codes. However the set of counties with the biggest chunks of people switched to boring three-letter / three-number patterns found just about everywhere else. I took a quick look at Nebraska counties with "a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants or more" (i.e., Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy) and compared them against the state as a whole. Those three counties alone accounted for an astounding 54% of Nebraska residents. The remaining 46% were spread amongst the other 90 counties!
I also learned that several other states had license plate coding schemes that identified counties to one degree or another. Wikipedia had the details although not contained on a single page. I’ve done the hard work so readers won’t have to hunt for the information themselves.
Geographic codes may be more common outside of the United States. I know that one could tell the home registration of vehicles in Ireland by an alphabetic code as I’d observed when I was over there last summer. For example, one could easily identify most of the tourists in Killarney because their automobiles had a "D" in the middle position of the plate. That meant the vehicle came from Dublin and was likely picked-up as a rental car when the visitor landed at Dublin Airport. It also meant that it might be an American not used to driving on the left side of the road. Proceed with caution!