On November 11, 2015 · 12 Comments

I thought I’d sliced-and-diced my county counting exploits in every way imaginable by the time I posted Counting Down, my account of barely crossed and airport only captures. Loyal reader and fellow county counter Andy begged to differ. He discovered one more dimension when he noted, "Probably 99% of what you or I color in on the map has been driven over or flown into, even if we got out of the car to touch ground with our own feet. But — have you visited any counties /only/ on foot?" On foot, eh? Now that was something I’d never considered.

I knew it couldn’t be very many instances. I’ve lived a pretty sedentary life devoid of strenuous hikes over vast distances. Friend-of-12MC Steve from (formerly Connecticut Museum Quest and now much more broadly focused) once completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I created an article on counties he’d hiked through hoping he’d pick up the county counting hobby, although it just wasn’t his thing. I’m sure Steve drove through a few of the 87 AT Trail counties on other journeys although I’d also guess that his "only-on-foot" tally would be substantial. Mine, not so much.

San Juan County, Utah

4 Corners
Four Corners – Summer 1992.
Utah, Colorado, New Mexico & Arizona come together at a single point

I think I have two only-on-foot counties. One for sure. That would be San Juan County which was Utah’s contribution to the sole state quadripoint of the United States, Four Corners. Notice my right foot touching said county in the photograph above from a long-ago road trip. I circled around the marker any number of times, traveling through that tiny bit of Utah on foot each time.

Four Corners

I had confidence in my memory although I consulted maps extensively to confirm it. Apparently I drove on all sides of San Juan Co. without actually crossing the border except on foot at the Four Corners marker. Even the road leading up to the marker remained completely outside of Utah. So that’s ONE. Absolutely.

Nantucket County, Massachusetts

Cisco Brewers
Visiting Cisco Brewery.
That is NOT the pedaled vehicle we used.

Might it be possible to bend the rules a little? I’d have a second example from one of my more recent travels if that wish were granted. Massachusetts’ island of Nantucket fell within its own county. I never used a motorized vehicle anywhere on Nantucket. However, we rented bicycles and pedaled a few miles into the countryside to the Cisco Brewery for an afternoon of tastings and entertainment during our stay (map). I think I deserved at least partial credit or an honorable mention for getting everywhere on Nantucket under my own personal muscle power.

Incidentally I couldn’t make the same claim a day earlier in Dukes County (Martha’s Vineyard, primarily). We rented a car in Oak Bluffs and drove all over the island.

Municipio de Juárez, Chihuahua, México

Av Juarez to S El Paso Crossing
Av Juarez to S El Paso Crossing by Aquistbe on Flickr (cc)

I wondered if I could expand the game into foreign countries. I’ve been to México twice, neither time using engine power so I felt I might meet the rules for an entire nation. It involved two separate Mexican states so I should also get credit for Chihuahua and Coahuila. However I decided to focus on counties for this exercise, or in this instance their Mexican equivalents, municipalities (municipios).

Several years ago on a business trip to El Paso, Texas, a group of us decided to walk across the bridge into Juárez (map). The smarter bunch hopped into a taxi as soon as they crossed the border and went to a restaurant in a nicer part of town. Others, myself included, just sort-of milled around the border area checking out the scene. I thought it was pretty seedy, with a bunch of shops selling liquor and discount drugs that would need prescriptions back in the United States. I lasted about ten minutes before I grew bored and walked back into the U.S., although apparently it added Municipio de Juárez to my very short only-on-foot list.

Municipio de Ocampo, Coahuila, México

Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, Mexico
Boquillas… and the burro I rode in on

How about an even better rule bender than Nantucket? Several years ago I wrote about my technically illegal (albeit tolerated) dodge across the border into México while visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas. I visited tiny Boquillas del Carmen (map) in Municipio de Ocampo. I never used a motorized vehicle during that visit although I didn’t remain entirely on foot either. I rode a burro into town after disembarking a rowboat that ferried me across the border. Yes, a burro. I’m fairly certain it was the only time I’ve even ridden a burro. I should get double points for that effort.


Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls. My Own Photo.

I couldn’t think of any other examples. I’ve traveled into Canada using seven different border stations. For a moment I thought I might be able to claim the Regional Municipality of Niagara in Ontario because I walked across the border from New York for a better view of the falls. Then I remembered I drove up to Toronto on a different trip and would have passed through the same municipality by automobile. No dice. I also looked at my travels to Europe, Asia and Australia and found nothing.

The final tally in the United States: one county solely on foot; one on foot and bicycle. In México, one municipio solely on foot; one on foot and burro.

Colorado is NOT a Rectangle

On February 19, 2009 · 11 Comments

Take a look at Colorado. Go ahead, stare at it for awhile. How would you describe its shape?

View Larger Map
This is Colorado, but you knew that already

Here’s the question:

  • (a) It’s a rectangle.
  • (b) It’s not a Rectangle

I’ve already given you the answer and it’s not a trick question so there’s no way you can earn anything less than an A+ on this test. Nonetheless, your eyes, intuition and education may be deceiving you. Webster’s defines a rectangle as: "a parallelogram all of whose angles are right angles; especially one with adjacent sides of unequal length." It certainly looks like a rectangle; four 90-degree angles with adjacent sides of unequal length. So what’s going on here?

The boundaries of the Territory and later the State of Colorado were defined by statute along precisely straight lines of latitude and longitude. Latitude doesn’t cause an issue. Those lines run east-west in parallel circles around the globe, never to meet. Longitude is a different story. Those run north-south and converge at the poles. Lines of longitude are furthest apart at the equator and come together at a common point when reaching the poles. Think old school for a moment and take a look at a globe (remember those?). The northern boundary of Colorado is several miles shorter than the southern boundary even though it’s difficult to see with the naked eye.

So perhaps the right shape to describe Colorado is a trapezoid, or maybe a geoellipsoidal rectangle? Those would be good guesses, but once again that would be wrong. You don’t really think I’d expend so much effort to talk about something so pedestrian would you? Please. No, the actual answer leads down a much stranger path.

The government set the boundaries with the best of intentions but, as has been demonstrated numerous times on Twelve Mile Circle, intent often conflicts with practical considerations. Once again, nineteenth century surveying techniques fell short of expectations when applied over hundreds of miles of rough terrain. Take a close look at the Colorado / Utah border and notice the small kink that resulted from a surveying error.

View Larger Map
North-South? The Larger of Two Surveying Errors along the Utah-Colorado Border

There’s a story floating around the Web that claims two separate surveying parties started at opposite ends of the line and worked towards each other. As the legend goes, the two discovered they were not going to converge as they drew closer to each other. Neither party would take the blame or resurvey their length of line so they simply connected the two and called it a day. It’s a fun story but it appears to by apocryphal.

Rather, I think I’ll defer to the explanation of the Utah Geological Survey, a government agency specializing in such matters. Check out their website. They have a great map and a precise explanation that seems to debunk the collective wisdom found elsewhere on the Intertubes.

If I can summarize for a moment, they maintain that a single 1879 survey of the Utah-Colorado boundary began at the Four Corners and marched straight up to Wyoming along the designated line of longitude. The survey party placed a marker at each mile along the way. They didn’t arrive where they expected on the Wyoming border and realized they’d made a mistake. A westward jog had to exist somewhere within the line but they knew not where.

Follow-up surveys revealed minor errors in 1885 and 1893. It didn’t matter. By then the boundary had already been fixed along the previous mile markers. Changing it would have required an agreement between both States and approval by Congress. Good luck with that!

The biggest error can be located between San Juan County (the county with the most neighboring counties in the United States. Woo-hoo!), near La Sal, Utah, and Montrose County near Paradox, Colorado. Here the survey team angled westward by more than a mile across an eight mile stretch. What were those guys drinking that day? I’m also totally enjoying the thought that the anomaly occurs near a town and valley named Paradox. There’s a similar kink in the border between Colorado and New Mexico right about here too, although I couldn’t find much information about how it arose. I’d guess probably due to a similar situation.

I remember being back in Junior High School when I took Geometry and thought I’d never need it again so I promptly forgot most of it. Well, I was wrong. I need it right now. What kind of shape describes Colorado? Is it a trapezoid with a couple of kinks? Wikipedia seems to say it might be a simple concave polygon since it has an interior angle of greater than 180 degrees and because none of the sides intersect (otherwise we could have had the elusive boundary cross which would have been totally exciting).

Perhaps you can find a more precise way to describe Colorado’s shape. However even without that, I think we’ve safely answer the quiz of the day: It’s not a rectangle.

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