Every trip seemed to end too quickly. We soon hit the final leg of our northern West Virginia odyssey and headed home. Two uncaptured counties remained on the itinerary, Taylor and Tucker. They formed doughnut holes on my map and they needed to be removed. Oh, how I hated those little white splotches. That completely irrational itch directed my motivation during the waning hours.
This also set a course for an amazing array of roadside attractions and geo-oddities. They clustered near a spot where West Virginia met the southwestern corner of Maryland’s westernmost county. That would be the "Middle of Nowhere" in layman’s terms.
Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church sat just south of Silver Lake, West Virginia (map). Who could possibly pass up an opportunity to see the "Smallest Church in 48 States?" Lots of people probably, although not me and not on this day. I’ve always been a sucker for oddball attractions.
It definitely fit the definition of small, measuring only 12 by 24 feet (3.6 X 7.3 metres). The interior made room for about a dozen parishioners plus an officiant. It even featured a complete Stations of the Cross with each station separated by barely a few inches. The caretakers deserved credit for creating an inspirational space on such a tiny scale.
I wondered about the 48 states. A plaque on an exterior wall provided a possible explanation: Mr. and Mrs. P. L. Milkint dedicated Our Lady of the Pines to the memory of their parents in 1958. That predated statehood for Alaska and Hawaii so maybe they never updated their claim when the number of states changed. Did it hold water? Not even close. Many houses of worship made similar boasts and several existed within smaller footprints. Nonetheless, it was a very small church in a gorgeous setting along our direct path and certainly deserved a stop.
Smallest Mailing Office?
Besides, Our Lady of Pines features a bonus attraction. Just behind it stood the "World’s Smallest Mailing Office." I went inside. It featured a service window and a number of personal mailboxes, a mail slot and everything else one would expected in a post office all stuffed into a compact space (photo). However, it didn’t register as the smallest postal facility even in the United States. That honor fell to Ochopee, Florida as described in an earlier Twelve Mile Circle article, Going Postal.
I think Mr. and Mrs. P. L. Milkint simply liked to build miniature structures. I could appreciate that. People might not stop if the sign simply said "smallish church and post office."
Less than a mile farther south on US Route 219, the highway shoulder widened where a sign marked a trailhead. We were in West Virginia, however the trail lead to the Maryland highpoint at Hoye-Crest, 3,360 feet (1,020 m). Oddly, the greatest elevation in Maryland could be approached best from a neighboring state. The path followed old logging roads across private property to the top of Backbone Mountain, then followed the ridge into Maryland to the highpoint (map). It wasn’t particularly arduous, rising about 700 vertical feet (215 m) over the mile-long trek. I prefer drive-up highpoints because I’m lazy and even so I didn’t have any trouble with this one.
Backbone Mountain hid a couple of additional features worth noting. The Eastern Continental Divide ran directly along the ridge. A glass of water poured there would flow either towards the Youghiogheny River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico or towards the North Branch of the Potomac River and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. Also the border between West Virginia and Maryland bisected the ridge so we visited Border Marker No. 3 along the trail (photo).
I still didn’t count myself as an official Highpointer although I’ve managed to visit a few of the easier ones. The list at this point included Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia.
Just a few miles farther south down the road appeared the entrance to Fairfax Stone State Park. King Charles II bestowed a substantial land grant reaching out to here in 1649. He defined a western boundary running from the headwaters of the Potomac River to the headwaters of the Rappahannock River in what was then the colony of Virginia. Nobody bothered to survey the line for another century because of its extreme isolation. Eventually ownership passed to Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax, who decided to mark his domain in 1746. He commissioned Peter Jefferson, father of future president Thomas Jefferson, to set a line between those points.
Jefferson’s marker on the North Branch of the Potomac came to be known as the Fairfax Stone, the source of the Potomac watershed. Later, others determined that the South Branch was actually the true source of the river although boundaries were already set by then. The Fairfax Stone remained (and still remains) the key marker. The state of West Virginia called it "as near as anything to being a cornerstone of the entire state."
The Fairfax Stone also figured prominently in a US Supreme Court case, Maryland v. West Virginia 217 U.S. 1 (1910). It defined the longitudinal separation between the states. Ironically the stone — actually a replacement because vandals destroyed the original — no longer touched Maryland. The North Branch took a brief western jog at the stone. Maryland began about a mile farther north after the court decision, where the river curved back to the east and crossed the appropriate line of longitude (map). It still marked the Grant, Preston, Tucker County tripoint in West Virginia, though.
A Growing Appreciation
Before I started counting counties in earnest I’d only been to the outskirts of West Virginia along with a couple of whitewater rafting trips. Since then I’ve completed four specific trips nibbling away at places I’d not yet visited. I’ve come to enjoy the state’s mountainous terrain, hidden corners and gracious people. More than anything, these trips allowed me to look past hillbilly stereotypes to appreciate the state on its own merits. That’s what traveling is all about. I do plan to continue returning to West Virginia even after I finish the final swatch and capture its remaining counties.
Of course I had to visit Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. The Twelve Mile Circle audience loved geo-oddities and I needed to deliver. I’d been to New England several times and I’ve plumbed its depths for nuggets repeatedly. What was left? Well, this lake with a really long name for one. That wasn’t the only remarkable feature in this corner where three states connected, this easily accessible area with an overabundance of lovely features all neatly aligned and waiting for my appearance. It became a day for geo-oddites.
Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg offered 45 characters of awesomeness too good to pass up, or perhaps more accurately 45-ish characters as there were several different spelling variations. I’ve often seen this touted as the longest place name in the United States and I had to experience it in person. We trudged down to Massachusetts to check it out (map). The lake itself wasn’t all that remarkable; it was certainly a pretty gem sparkling in the early afternoon sun although it competed with many other wonderful lakes sprinkled about the countryside. Its real distinguishing feature was its name.
Many people have written about the unusual name and their accounts littered the Intertubes, including some appearing in respectable publications like the New York Times. Fact needed to be separated from fiction. The cold, hard truth was that Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg contained an element of fiction. Numerous sources traced its long-form name back to newspaperman Laurence J. Daly who edited the local periodical, The Webster Times. He’d concocted a fanciful tale on a slow news day in the early 20th Century about an agreement between Native American tribes, claiming the full translation meant "you fish on your side, I fish on my side and nobody fish in the middle." It sounded great but it wasn’t accurate.
It took a while but, gradually, the You-I-Nobody fantasy built a head of steam, aired on national radio broadcasts, rewritten in newspapers everywhere, and buoyed by a "Ripley’s Believe It or Not" illustration. People with Webster-area roots began mailing clips about Mr. Daly’s tale to the editor of the Webster Times, Laurence J. Daly, he recalled in my presence more than once.
The U.S. Geological Survey recorded the body of water officially as Chaubunagungamaug in the Geographic Names Information System. That was an impressive string of 17 characters although far short of 45. It also included some additional history.
In 1642, Woodward and Saffery, the first surveyors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called it "The Great Pond." In 1645, Connecticut Governor John Winthrop called it "The Lakes of Quabage." In a 1707 survey, John Chandler recorded the name as “Chaubunnagungamoug.”
Various translations of the shorter string, Chaubunnagungamoug, referenced the Algonquian language spoken by local Nipmuc Indians, and generated meanings such as Place of the Boundaries or Lake Divided by Islands. GNIS also recognized Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg and similar spellings as legitimate variants. Did I actually visit the place with the longest name in the United States? Well, maybe. I didn’t have to go out of my way to experience it so it wasn’t like it involved any special effort.
I was much more interested in some unfinished business, the only object skipped in 2012 during an epic Craziest Geo-Oddity Adventure Ever. I hit every conceivable geographic feature of importance in Connecticut on a single day as I circled the state with Steve from Connecticut Museum Quest (now simply CTMQ). I truly believed that we were the first people ever to undertake that quest and it may never be surpassed. The Connecticut-Massachusetts-Rhode Island tripoint had been on our original itinerary (map) and we failed to capture it. We had to abandon our final objective with daylight running short and exhaustion kicking-in. I seemed to recall being quietly content with that decision at the time. We’d seen enough.
Steve reminded me of our omission when I put out a call for my 2016 travel plans. The CTMARI Tripoint absolutely had to make the cut. The goal was never about Lake Chargogga-whatever, it just happened to fall along a convenient line as I charted our course towards Connecticut’s Quiet Corner where I could reach the tripoint. I relied upon Steve’s CTMARI page for directions and you should too. Not only did it include the clearest, easiest path to the tripoint, it also included an account of the Great East Thompson Train Wreck of 1891, "The only time in US railroading history that FOUR trains crashed into each other!" Go over there and read it. I’ll wait.
We followed Steve’s recommendations, had a relaxing walk through the woods, and arrived at the tripoint just as expected. The cellular network extended nicely to this corner despite its perceived remoteness and I fired-off a self-congratulatory tweet with photo to the world. I could now finally call the journey to all Connecticut Extremes complete.
I’m certainly no peak bagger although I’ve managed to summit a few state highpoints over the years, usually those requiring minimal effort because I’m lazy and unmotivated. It’s always an added bonus if I can drive all the way to the top. I think my total stood at 6 state highpoints prior to this trip: Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina and Tennessee. Plus the District of Columbia. Then I added Rhode Island.
Jerimoth Hill would never be described as a challenging summit requiring great technical expertise. Literally, it was merely one crest amongst many rolling hills at the far northwestern corner of Rhode Island (map). It happened to extend a few feet higher than others nearby when someone drew artificial lines a few centuries ago to create a colony that later became a state. Still, at 811 feet (247 metres), Rhode Island had a higher elevation than Mississippi, Louisiana, Delaware and Florida. It used to be a running joke in the highpointer community that fewer people had reached the summit of lowly Jerimoth Hill than the peak of Mt. Everest. A crotchety landowner blocked access to the summit at the the point of a gun for decades, eventually allowing people to visit on special days once or twice a year. He passed away several years ago and it became the property of the state of Rhode Island after a series of real estate transactions. Now anyone can park by the side of Old Hartford Pike and walk a gentle trail through fragrant pine forest a few hundred yards to the marker.
In reality it’s completely unremarkable and practically indistinguishable from any other knoll nearby. However, I gave the Rhode Island highpointers all due credit for doing their best to make their summit special. I got the sense that their treatment was more than a little tongue-in-cheek, with its stone cairns, summit register box and Himalayan prayer flags like one would expect on much more exalted mountaintops. Still, Jerimoth Hill counted as a state highpoint just as much as Denali and I doubt I’ll ever travel to Alaska and climb to 20,310 feet (6,190 m). I took my short stroll through the woods to a small boulder and I deemed it a success.
Easy Road Trip
Best of all, these three geo-oddities were aligned neatly and in close proximity. Anyone should be able to replicate my feat. I imagined it might be a nice day-trip for 12MC readers from Boston or Hartford.
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.