End of the Line

On June 10, 2015 · 14 Comments

Many longtime Twelve Mile Circle readers probably already guessed that this article that would come next. Immediately after a story about the beginning of the alphabet, naturally one would expect to find one about the end. It became an equally difficult task too, except for the most notable location.

Take a moment to ponder this insect.


Zyzzyx chilensis
Zyzzyx chilensis by Pato Novoa, on Flickr (cc)

Zyzzyx chilensis, a type of sand wasp native to Argentina, Chile, and Peru, gained its name in the 1930’s. Flies would view this creature as particularly nasty and formidable. This wasp had a peculiar habit of laying its eggs on flies, which then hatched and consumed its host parasitically as larvae grew. I thought it sounded pretty gruesome.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone completely off the deep end just yet. What may seem completely irrelevant actually helps establish context. Every site I examined included Zzyzx (spelled slightly differently than the name of the wasp) as the final entry on any alphabetical list of place names. Actually, it was the only entry. Like Zyzzyx chilensis, it preyed upon the weak and helpless in a parasitic manner as readers will soon see.

Zzyzx, California, USA


Zzyzx
Zzyzx by Leif Harboe, on Flickr (cc)

I couldn’t find a definite connection between Zyzzyx chilensis and the settlement of Zzyzx (map) although the timing seemed oddly coincidental. The former Soda Springs became Zzyzx in the 1940’s, during the same basic time period. However I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it for a couple of reasons. First, every oddball website mentioned Zzyzx so I didn’t have anything new to add. Second, it was a contrived name designed specifically to place it at the end of any alphabetical list. Zzyzx cheated.

A self-proclaimed minister-slash-doctor named Curtis Springer created Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort on the western edge of the Mohave desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He promised all sorts of miracle cures and made piles of money. It was a complete fraud including the alleged "hot springs" he heated with a boiler. Springer didn’t even own the land. The government removed him from his desert domain in the 1970’s. After that Zzyzx became the Desert Studies Center for California State University, Fullerton so at least some good came from it. Roadside America had a particularly nice summary.

Everything about Zzyzx was fake including its name. Nonetheless, I couldn’t find any other place that began with a Double-Z, and it will likely remain alone until someone decides to honor ZZ Top.


Beginning with ZY


Żywiec polish beer in Warsaw (Warszawa)
Żywiec polish beer in Warsaw (Warszawa) by Ulf Liljankoski, on Flickr (cc)

I jumped farther down the alphabet for places beginning with ZY. There were several waiting to be found. Żywiec, Poland seemed to be the most significant. It had a population of a little more than thirty thousand and its own brand of beer. The Żywiec Brewery had a nice range of beverages although I couldn’t figure out much because the website was entirely in Polish — not that I’m complaining since it should be in Polish — just that my navigation was less than elegant as I guessed randomly and hoped for cognates.

Zyryanka (map) in the Sakha Republic of Russia also deserved a mention primarily because the 12MC Complete Index Map lacked decent coverage of Russia. I didn’t even know if the Russian name (Зырянка) would be remarkable in its native language or not. Anyway, the settlement apparently dated back to the 1930’s to serve local coal mines, and other than that was probably more notable for its remoteness and frigid temperatures.


Beginning with ZW


Beautiful view of Zwolle at night
Beautiful view of Zwolle at night by Ley, on Flickr (cc)

I didn’t find any ZX places although there were plenty of ZW’s as I worked my way back down the alphabet. There were too many to discuss although here’s a small sampling:

  • Zwönitz, Germany (map): a smallish town in Saxony founding nearly a thousand years ago.
  • Zwolle, Netherlands (map): the Province of Overijssel’s capital city, perhaps the most predominant ZW location with more than 125 thousand residents.
  • Zwicky, Canada (map): an unincorporated area (railway point) in Kootenay Land District, British Columbia

Feel free to nominate your favorites.

Nest of Spies

On October 22, 2014 · 1 Comments

I’ve mentioned several times before that geo-oddities can be extremely localized, and I’ve used my own hometown of Arlington County, Virginia as an ongoing example. I created a bicycle ride over the weekend that highlighted a specific theme that I’ve not discussed before. Being located so close to the nation’s capital, Arlington County has been a hotbed of spies, espionage, and various cat-and-mouse games between the United States and the former Soviet Union (and now Russia).

A little Interubes sleuthing uncovered a few of the more noteworthy events and places in Arlington. I was amazed at the amount of activity that took place behind the scenes and I’m sure only a small portion ever made it into public view. Naturally I had to visit some of the known locations in person, and readers can too. I produced a map that begins and ends at the Ballston Metro Station. The complete route is about 10 miles (16 km).

All photos are my own unless otherwise labeled.


The Early Cold War


Arlington Hall
Arlington Hall as it Now Appears

Arlington Hall began as a girls’ school in the 1920’s. However, a ready-made facility with easy access to the Pentagon sounded really attractive to the government. The military seized and closed the school during the Second World War as vital to the American war effort. It became Arlington Hall Station, a headquarters of the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, where cryptologists focused on cracking Japanese codes. The Army decided to retain the property after the war because of an emerging new threat, the Cold War. Eventually the operation became part of the newly-formed National Security Agency.

Soviet efforts to penetrate Arlington Hall began almost immediately, and succeeded.

The secrets were held from everyone except the Russians… the first decrypt of Soviet KGB messages sent from New York was witnessed by Bill Weiband, the NKVD agent. The secrets were later officially shared with Kim Philby, the phlegmatic British MI-6 liaison officer to the new CIA in 1949, when he visited Arlington Hall.

Many of the Arlington Hall workers lived in the adjacent garden apartments of Buckingham and the single family homes of the Arlington Forest neighborhood, and Soviet spies flocked there too. An off-premise Officers Club existed at the old Henderson Estate (now the site of the Lubber Run Community Center, map). Officials feared inebriated officers might say things that should remain silent so the club was moved onto campus. That didn’t halt the flow of sensitive information from deeply-embedded moles though.

Cryptology operations moved to more secure facilities in the 1980’s. One part of the Arlington Hall campus now hosts the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and the other holds the US Army National Guard Readiness Center. That was the official word, anyway.

There were also rumors of Soviet and/or East German operations coordinated from a condominium building at 1515 S. Arlington Ridge Road (Street View). I had no idea whether that was true or not, although Arlington Ridge Road did make an appearance on Twelve Mile Circle in a completely different context a few years ago.


Aldrich Ames


Aldrich Ames House
The Aldrich Ames Residence

Aldrich Ames serves a lifelong prison sentence at the Allenwood high security prison in Pennsylvania, as he has done for the last two decades. He had been a counterintelligence officer in the Central Intelligence Agency for more than 30 years when he was finally exposed and arrested in 1994. His job focused on targeting people who worked at the Soviet Embassy to see if they could be converted into moles. Behind the scenes, he sold information about the identity of Soviet spies who then promptly faced death or simply disappeared.

The CIA and FBI learned that Russian officials who had been recruited by them were being arrested and executed. These human sources had provided critical intelligence information about the USSR, which was used by U.S. policy makers in determining U.S. foreign policy. Following analytical reviews and receipt of information about Ames’s unexplained wealth, the FBI opened an investigation in May 1993.

Ames was arrested at his Arlington home, at 2512 N Randolph Street.

The Arlington County property records noted ownership by Aldrich H. & Rosario C. Ames. The property was seized by the Federal government and sold in 1995.


Robert Hanssen



A Dead Drop Used by Robert Hanssen

Robert Hanssen worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation until his 2001 arrest, and now serves a life sentence at Florence ADMAX prison in South Carolina. Like Ames, Hanssen sold secrets primarily for greed, and he exposed informants buried deep within the Soviet military system. Hanssen used a number of "dead drops," or inconspicuous places where he could leave documents and receive payments. At least one of those secret hiding spots was located in Arlington.

I used to take my children to the Long Branch Nature Center when they were younger (map). Little did I suspect that it had a hidden historical past. There, under the edge of a wooden outdoor amphitheater (photo), Russian agents left a paper bag filled with $50,000 in cash for Hanssen. The FBI was already on Hanssen’s tail at that point and watched the location for several days. Hanssen never showed-up although he was captured at another dead drop a little later. Upon arrest he reportedly exclaimed, "What took you so long?"


Operation Ghost Stories



FBI Video of a Dead Drop in Arlington

Just when everyone thought the Cold War was relegated to the distant past it reemerged from the underground in 2010, surfaced by the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories. As the FBI stated,

Our agents and analysts watched the deep-cover operatives as they established themselves in the U.S. (some by using stolen identities) and went about leading seemingly normal lives—getting married, buying homes, raising children, and assimilating into American society… The SVR was in it for the long haul. The illegals were content to wait decades to obtain their objective, which was to develop sources of information in U.S. policymaking circles.

The ten Russian deep undercover agents that were arrested — including two who lived in Arlington — were not convicted of any crime. They were allowed to return to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange; of spies traded for spies. Both sides continued the cloak-and-dagger.

The FBI released a large compendium of documents from their investigation in 2011 including a video of an actual drop taking place in an unnamed Arlington park, a bag containing $5,000. There was speculation about the actual location at the time. It could have been one of several Arlington locations because of the lack of visual clues in the video, although most signs pointed to Glencarlyn Park (map). Fittingly, that would be less than a mile from Hanssen’s dead drop. I looked around and couldn’t find an exact match although the bridges there were constructed in a similar manner (photo). I’ll keep looking.

Maybe I’ll find a bag of cash.

Spit

On June 26, 2014 · 2 Comments

I’ve certainly featured spits of land on 12MC before. They’ve come up in the context of Shingle Spits and in a very specialized sense in one of my favorite geographic forms, the always wonderful tombolo. I was able to visit a particularly nice example of a spit in Homer, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. I’ve discussed their formation by a process called longshore drift in an earlier article so I won’t go into detail about that either.



Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska (my own photo)

Rather, I became a lot more curious about the name. Why spit? The whole notion of spit — the saliva kind — seemed a bit unsettling. Maybe the two could have a common etymology, I pondered. Spit could be expelled from one’s mouth, and a sand spit could seem to be expelled from a nearby landmass in a similar fashion. It appeared somewhat plausible if a bit vulgar.

Fortunately the Intertubes included sources such as the Online Etymology Dictionary that I could consult for such burning questions and curiosities. I took a look at spit, well in its written form not in its literal form of course. The saliva version came from the Old English spittan, similar to spew. It may have had an imitative origin as well, an onomatopoeia, sounding a lot like what it described. How pleasant.

Spit, the landform, may have derived from late Old English spitu, coming down from from Proto-Germanic and before that Proto-Indo-European, meaning a sharp point. A related usage would apply if one cooked meat on a spit. The word spike also fit here.

It appeared that two similarly-sounding words with different etymologies eventually converged. That was interesting for about thirty seconds. Let’s take a look at a few spits I’ve selected somewhat randomly because I found an answer quicker than I expected and I still have a lot of room left in this article.


Arabat Spit



Arabat Spit, Crimea

I decided to highlight the Arabat Spit on the Sea of Azov for a couple of reasons. First, it was considered the longest sand spit in the world at 110 kilometres (68 miles). That in itself was sufficient justification. Second, it became a part of disputed territory with the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Was it part of Ukraine? Was it part of the Russian Federation? I won’t wade into that morass except to note its superlative size and peculiar situation. This is not a political blog.


Inch Strand, Ireland


Inch Beach
Inch Beach by Jim, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Spits can exist anywhere longshore drift takes hold. The process often created great beaches, as happened at Inch Strand (or Inch Beach) on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland (map). An inch would seem to be an unsuitable unit of measurement for this sizable sandy expanse so I’ll assume it came down from something Gaelic. I featured this spot solely because I hope to travel onto the Dingle Peninsula later this summer, and if so, maybe I’ll stop at Inch and take a photograph for the 12MC horde.


Sandspit Beach, Pakistan


Sandspit, Karachi
Sandspit, Karachi by Hemanshu Kumar, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Finally I had to mention Sandspit Beach outside of Karachi, Pakistan along Hawke’s Bay on the Arabian Sea (map). As one source noted, "One thing unique about these waters which you won’t find in any part of the world are the horse and camel rides." I’m sure there were many other places where one could ride a horse on a spit (I even saw that happening on the Homer Spit) so the camel would be the thing that made it special. Did that make Sandspit Beach unique? Where there other spits with camel rides? Do the camels spit on people, as camels sometimes do? Who knows. Let’s proclaim it as if its all true and have the Intertubes work it out.

I confess that I featured Sandspit Beach for a completely different reason. I wanted to add a Pakistan push-pin to the 12MC Complete Index map. Unbelievably, until today, after more than a thousand articles, the Twelve Mile Circle had never focused a single topic on Pakistan. Today was your lucky day, Pakistan.

Imagine dodging camel dung while looking for a sandy spot to lay a towel, though.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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