Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.
I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.
Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?
Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.
Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.
We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.
The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.
The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.
But Wait, You Also Get This
Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.
The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,
We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.
What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.
Google released its back catalog of Street View images recently, allowing users to understand locational changes since the introduction of Street View in 2007. I figured I’d let the hype die-down a bit and check it out.
Succinctly, I considered it an interesting novelty and probably not much more than that at the moment. How many observable physical changes happened over the last few years at most locations? The real benefit will accrue as decades and then generations pass. Professional historians, and even armchair genealogists and aficionados like myself will discover increasing enjoyment as time passes and the archive expands. I only wish I could see my great-grandparent’s home in southeast Washington, DC at the turn of the last century, for example, as it evolved over the years they lived there. That doesn’t exist of course. Right now Street View covers three fixed points in time at that location; 2007, 2009 and 2011. My descendants on the other hand will get what I wish I had for my ancestors, although it will be I who will be the subject of their curiosity. Google’s imagery will become an historical treasure and assuredly a valuable collection within the National Archives even if Google morphs into something completely unrelated in the meantime.
Operating under a theory that somehow even Twelve Mile Circle will be captured and preserved for posterity within that same Google cloud, maybe I can give my great-grandchildren a head start on some observational elements. For even in my own tiny yard I’ve noticed ever-so-subtle changes over the last several years, and the Street View cars captured them faithfully in their glorious monotonous insignificance.
Google Street View, November 2007
It seemed like I waited forever for Street View coverage to finally arrive in the Washington, DC area when I chronicled the roll-out with enthusiasm back in November 2008. The photos seemed grainy and blurry. Coverage was spotty. Nonetheless it represented a revolutionary idea. I could drive vicariously down a street I’d never seen in person and understand the neighborhood, its topography, its physical characteristics, maybe what it meant to live there in a visual sense. We all remember the fan sites that sprouted soon thereafter with images of automobile accidents, of crack houses, of people caught in delicate personal situations and the like.
The new timeline feature brought back memories of the first images recorded at my home, an autumn day in November 2007. One can barely notice a twig sprouting on the right side of the foreground, a product of leaves already dropped for the winter plus poor camera resolution. That was a young Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, a species native to eastern North America sometimes called a tulip poplar although it wasn’t closely related to tulips or poplars. One day it simply appeared in the yard, a sprout less than an inch high with two tiny leaves. Ordinarily I would have pinched it with my thumb and forefinger and yanked it out as just one more weed to remove. My older son wouldn’t let me do that so I mowed around the pathetic stem very carefully all summer and it became "his" tree.
Google Street View, August 2009
Google improved its technology by the time its car passed through my neighborhood again in August 2009, recording and posting much improved imagery. The tulip tree started to seem like an actual tree. This species is noted for its quick growth and that’s confirmed after the passage of only two years. It’s a very ancient type of tree related to Magnolia, extending back to the Lower Cretaceous period when Dinosaurs roamed the earth. Apparently tulip trees do best in the earlier periods of forest succession before other hardwoods start to block the sun and crowd them out. That was the exact niche it exploited on my lawn, a sunny spot with little competition.
I also noticed my old Jeep Cherokee in the driveway. My job moved back downtown to a different office and public transportation became an option again on days I didn’t telework. I sold it to a cop. Thankfully it continued to perform well afterwards.
Google Street View, June 2012
Another couple of years passed, now jumping to June 2012, and the tree continued to grow. I noticed that this image had to represent a Thursday morning. See the blue recycling bin next to the curb on the left? Pickups were Thursday. The bin had already been emptied and not yet returned to its rightful spot next to the house. That would make it early in the day. Also the last of the blossoms remained on our late-blooming azalea shrubs and the upstairs windows were open. That signified very early in the month assuming Google’s June accuracy. I’m going to guess the car came through on Thursday, June 7, 2012 around 8:00-9:00 am.
My own photograph, May 2014
Two more years ticked away quickly. The Street View car should be expected to pass through once again anytime now. In its absence I went ahead and photographed the tulip tree yesterday although the new springtime leaves haven’t completely opened yet. The tree kept growing, actually quite an impressive amount over such a small number of years.
I wish I knew when Google would sweep through my neighborhood again. I’d make sure I stood outside waiving my arms for a fleeting moment of Internet glory. Does anyone have any Google connections? Certainly someone should be able to hook me up with a schedule given all of the geo-geeks in the 12MC audience. I’m afraid to even ask what I’d have to do to score a ride-along.
One of the reasons I enjoyed the various marathon series offered by Mainly Marathons — other than the fact that I didn’t have to run them — was that they provided an opportunity to see parts of the country not normally encountered by casual tourists. I’ve done this twice now, first with the Dustbowl Series and now with the Riverboat Series. I chauffeured a runner from one obscure locale to another, and in return I could tweak the path to count new counties, capture geo-oddities, and experience undiluted Americana. I called that a fair bargain.
Graceland, well Graceland, certainly wasn’t an obscure destination lacking for tourism. I would have gone out of my way to visit Graceland eventually anyway so maybe it wasn’t the best example to begin this article. However it was the complete embodiment of Americana so it had to rise to the top of my list. The Cult of Elvis always fascinated me so Graceland (map) required my careful, respectful attention.
How could I possible choose a single photograph to represent such an astonishing cultural touchstone? Every single item, from the house itself to its outlandish furnishings of the Jungle Room, to the walls of platinum records, to the customized jet airplane with gold bathroom fixtures, simply everything shouted Elvis Presley. I selected the jumpsuits although feel free to scroll back-and-forth for other images. One exhibit included an entire series of jumpsuits and it was fascinating to observe when they first appeared in the early 1970’s as very simple designs, and progressed over the years with Elvis adding ever-increasing amounts of elaborate decorative elements including capes, rhinestones, embroidery and cowboy-sized belt buckles.
Travel Tip: arrive at Graceland just as it opens for the day and purchase Platinum tickets instead of VIP, then board the shuttle for the mansion grounds as the very first activity. This costs about half the price of VIP and an early arrival practically guaranteeing "front of the line" access offered by the VIP tour.
Of course I consulted 12MC’s Complete Index map before I left on my grand adventure. Doesn’t everyone? I wanted to see if I’d written about oddities along my expected path and whether they might merit a personal visit. I noticed a reference to Low Clearance, an article posted in February 2011. The story was all about extremely low overpasses, the kind that might rip the top off of a box truck like a can opener. One such example happened to be found in Henning, Tennessee and I would be driving directly past it (map). Typically I wouldn’t go out of my way just to see an 8’0″ (2.44 m) railroad trestle underpass, however this one involved a measly 30-second detour so why not?
I tweeted the photograph later that day as a victory salute, prompting an even more impressive return tweet from @mapman85 of a better example near Greenfield, Ohio: 7’5″!
I titled this photo, "Random creature made from tires outside of Dumas, Arkansas" (street view) and that pretty much described it. This wasn’t the best of photos although not so bad considering that it was captured from a moving automobile with a mobile phone; notice the side-view mirror in the lower left corner.
I never could understand what an oversized rubber humanoid had to do with a TV Repair business although that didn’t really matter either. That was the kind of whacky non sequitur I’d come to expect in these out-of-the-way places. Some guy wanted a giant tire sculpture in his front yard, and darn it, that’s what he was going to build right there.
Do people still get TV’s repaired anymore? Maybe he had a lot of time on his hands.
Two legendary highways intersected in Clarksdale, Mississippi (map). US Highway 61 ran north-south. We drove it from Vicksburg to Memphis through the heart of the flat, empty floodplain of the Mississippi Delta. This was the storied "Blues Highway," probably second only to Route 66 for its revered place in American nostalgia and culture (e.g., Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited).
US Highway 49 — while not as well known culturally as US 61 — also ran through the Delta. It would have crossed familiar territory to classic Blues musicians such as Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf who sang about it.
The Clarksdale, Mississippi intersection of these two storied highways came to be known as the Crossroads, and sometimes the Devil’s Crossroads. Legends pointed here as the place where bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical skills, as supposedly referenced in his 1936 recording of "Cross Roads Blues." Of course that assumed one believed in such things, and if so, understanding that there were multiple Delta locations all laying claim to the actual Devil’s Crossroads. Tourism, you know.
Like the Tire Man, this Giant Mailbox didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than standing by the roadside whimsically and entertain passersby. One can appreciate the sense of scale by comparing it to the flagpole and the stop sign. We stumbled upon it unexpectedly as we drove up US Highway 65 in northeastern Louisiana. Well done Ben Burnside of Franklin Plantation, Newellton, Louisiana (street view).
Rest Stop Sundial
I suppose I became sensitized to sundials when I wrote Remarkable Sundials last year. We stopped at an otherwise unremarkable wayside along Interstate 40 in Tennessee as we returned home. I spotted a sculpture with a familiar shape from the corner of my eye, walked over to investigate it, and figured it to be a sundial of a sort (satellite view). I searched for it on the Intertubes when I returned home. It was a work called "Marking Time" by Preston Farabow installed in 2007.
A press release from the Tennessee Arts Commission provided all of the particulars, and noted that it "incorporates markers representing all 95 counties of the state." A county-counting sundial? That practically defined perfection in the Twelve Mile Circle universe.