Head of the Class

On June 7, 2015 · 7 Comments

I thought back to my school days when a teacher would call roll alphabetically. Naturally people with surnames like Anderson would be called upon first. Mine fell somewhere in the middle so I had to pay attention for a little while and then I could daydream for the rest of the drill. I always felt sorry for people named Zimmerman or such who had to remain on their toes the entire time. Those lucky Andersons, though. They could kick-back and relax, their jobs completed immediately thanks to a simple quirk of alphabetical order. The same thing could probably be said of countries. Imagine Afghanistan at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, first in line and grabbing a big dose of attention. Compare that to Zimbabwe. Most viewers are probably tuned out mentally by the time Zimbabwe strolls along.

That got me wondering about which city, town, or village might grab the very first spot in an alphabetical line. Sure, it would vary based upon the language used to sort through the list although I didn’t let that spoil my fun. Research appeared to be amazingly deficient though. I figured I’d find a ready list somewhere on the Intertubes and it would be easy. Perhaps that existed somewhere even though I checked — which meant I searched for a maximum of about 30 seconds — and I couldn’t find one. I did uncover the next best thing, Wikipedia’s List of towns and cities with 100,000 or more inhabitants.

A Coruña, Spain

A Coruña - Palacio Municipal
A Coruña – Palacio Municipal by Pepe Martin (Mário José Martins), on Flickr (cc)

A Coruña in Spain rose to the very top of that list (map). That was its officially-recognized name in the Galician language, prevalent in the northwestern corner of Spain that was once part of the Kingdom of Galicia. In Spanish it was La Coruña and in English sometimes Corunna. According to the rules of alphabetization, nothing came before something so the single letter A followed by a space came before A followed by additional letters. A Coruña was the only city with a single letter A so Wikipedia placed it first.

I had a bit of a quibble with A Coruña. The letter A was used as a definite article. There was a school of thought that the definite article should be disregarded in an alphabetical list. Certainly that was common with geographic place names, e.g., The Bahamas was generally listed as Bahamas, The and The Gambia transformed into Gambia, The. I’m sure there were plenty of learned people who could debate those finer points back-and-forth indefinitely although I didn’t want to get involved. Nonetheless, for me, placing A Coruña at the head of the line felt like cheating.

Aachen, Germany

Aachen Skyline
Aachen Skyline by Stephen Downes, on Flickr (cc)

Aachen seemed to align more properly with the spirit of the contest, beginning with a double-A followed immediately by another letter near the start of the alphabet in the third position. AAC would be a hard combination to beat. People have lived in the Aachen area (map) since neolithic times, drawn there by its warm spring-fed waters. It became a spa town during Roman times and then a favored place of kings such as Charlemagne. Modern aficionados of geo-oddities also appreciated Aachen for its placement on the German side of the Belgium – Netherlands – Germany (BEDENL) tripoint, and prior to that as part of the quadripoint with the bizarre Neutral Moresnet "no man’s land" condominium.

Aaron, USA

Aaron, Indiana, USA

That still left a lot of white space between cities of a hundred thousand residents or more and the untold multitude of places with smaller populations. I continued to be hampered by a lack of prior research so I turned to the US Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System. It included a bunch of AAA stuff, primarily several small reservoirs called tanks in New Mexico, which I discounted. It also included an Aaberg School in South Dakota and the Aaberlite Mines in Colorado. Still, I couldn’t find a populated place that would come before Aachen in an alphabetical list.

I didn’t feel like running a bunch of separate queries because GNIS required a minimum of three letters when using a wildcard (e.g., I would have to search aaa*, aab*, aac* and so on if I wanted to check every combination starting with double-a). I took the easy route and figured there must be some place called Aaron. Sure enough, Aaron existed in four states, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri. None of them was larger than a flyspeck. Only Aaron, Indiana had a Wikipedia entry and even that was limited to two simple sentences ("Aaron is an unincorporated community in Switzerland County, Indiana, in the United States. A post office was established at Aaron in 1871, and remained in operation until it was discontinued in 1907").

That was a long way of saying I was too lazy to figure out a location that would appear first on a list of populated places in the United States. I’ll throw Aaron out there as my guess and let someone else challenge it if so inclined.

Aasiwaskwasich, Québec, Canada


Natural Resources Canada actually provided an alphabetic list of place names, bless their hearts. I supposed that was feasible because there were fewer places named in Canada due to large swaths of lightly-populated territory. Canada included a former First Nation Village named Aa-at-sow-is in British Columbia, and that would have been a top contender, however I wanted to find an inhabited place, not something abandoned. The best I could find was Aasiwaskwasich, completely in the middle of nowhere near the eastern side of Hudson Bay.

But wait, the next entry was amusing even if it wasn’t a populated locality: Aass Indian Reserve 3 (map) in the Nootka Land District, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Interestingly, there were no signs of Aass Indian Reserves 1 or 2. Nor did there appear to be a tribe of Aass Indians. Don’t check a search engine for Aass Indians, though. I did that and let’s just say one cannot unsee things once they’ve been revealed.

Completely Unrelated

Twelve Mile Circle received its first visit ever from Wallis and Futuna yesterday! I thought it would be nearly impossible and was genuinely surprised when it appeared. It’s a French collectivity in the South Pacific with only about 15,000 residents and most of them speak Polynesian languages or French. I’m not sure why they wanted to know more about Smokey and the Bandit’s Route although I will note that this page seems to attract a fairly steady stream of visitors for some unknown reason.

Ireland, Part 6 (Obscure Geography)

On July 31, 2014 · 4 Comments

Don’t worry, this will be the final installment of the Ireland odyssey. I appreciated everyone wading through my personal indulgences so I saved the best for last, the Irish adventures that came closest to standard 12MC content. A couple of them are genuine geo-oddities.

Inch Beach

I mentioned Inch Beach (map) a few weeks ago in an article about sand spits, and I even threatened to visit the strand for a photo. That’s exactly how it unfolded as I drove onto the Dingle Peninsula, and then to Inch Beach, the Dangle of Dingle.

Longtime reader "wangi" commented on that earlier article, noting "One of the Scots Gaelic terms for an island, innis, is frequently Anglicised as inch in Scottish place-names. I imagine same is true in Ireland." I developed an alternate theory during my personal visit. Inch Beach was literally an inch wide. I captured photographic evidence.

Well, maybe it’s an inch and a half.


Tripointing didn’t seem to be much of a "thing" in Ireland. I could be wrong although I failed to find any Internet coverage of places where three Irish counties joined together at a common point. I did notice, however, that my great-grandfather’s boyhood home in Mountcollins fell remarkably close to the Cork, Kerry, Limerick tripoint, which I dubbed COKELI in the normal naming convention. Paradoxically, this appeared to be the first time COKELI had ever been used in that context at least according to Google. I did learn that Cokeli was a mans’ name, a variant of Coakley, meaning "from the charcoal meadow." That was an interesting etymology although it had nothing to do with tripointing, of course.

Yes, after spending a long day touring family history sites with distant relatives, I diverted my wife, kids and father slightly out of our way to find the COKELI tripoint (map). Not only did local jurisdictions mark the point, they’d reserved a small adjoining greenspace with a picnic table and a thatched-roof shelter dubbed Three Counties Park. Go up to that Flickr photo and click the left and right arrows to see more. Just don’t mess with the thatch. They don’t like that.

The marker on an old piling also implied that there was a bridge once that crossed directly over the tripoint on the River Feale (the current bridge crossed only between Counties Cork and Kerry a few metres farther south). I was surprised. Maybe Ireland contained more tripoint treasures? It also dawned on me that maybe my geo-oddity fascination might have been ancestral. Perhaps some ancient family legend or memory of this spot somehow sparked my appreciation of geographic anomalies.

County Counting

Counties of Ireland
Underlying copyrighted image used in compliance with d-maps.com terms and conditions.
12MC’s County Counting Map of Ireland

I didn’t find any Irish county counting sites, either. Maybe that’s because it wouldn’t be a difficult challenge. Notice my personal county counting map of Ireland after two weeks. I wasn’t even trying, really. A more conscientious effort certainly would have eliminated the Cork City and Co. Offaly doughnuts.

My tally: Clare; Cork; Dublin; Fingal; Galway; Galway City; Kerry; Kildare; Kilkenny; Laois; Limerick; Limerick City; Longford; Mayo; Meath; North Tipperary; Roscommon; South Dublin; South Tipperary; Westmeath.

Incidentally, it was pretty difficult to find a decent outline map that included Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, Fingal, and South Dublin, all carved from the former County Dublin in 1994. Come on Intertubes, I expect more up-to-date stuff even though I’m not willing to pay anything for it. Isn’t that how it works?


Gaeltachtai le hainmneacha2.svg
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons attribution share-alike license version 2.5

The Gaeltacht fascinated me, the small portions of Ireland recognized as Irish-speaking regions. I spent considerable time in the Gaeltacht while on Achill Island and lesser time on the western half of the Dingle Peninsula. My relatives in Limerick also spoke Gaelic fluently. It was the daily household language of older members of the family as they grew-up. One of my relatives even taught Gaelic. I wondered about that situation and they explained that my 3rd-Great Grandfather came originally from the Dingle Peninsula, from an area still in the Gaeltacht.

Seemingly everyone in the Gaeltacht also spoke English fluently so I never encountered a language barrier other than trying to interpret a thick Irish brogue, and them dealing with my insufferable American accent. The noticeable differences involved road signs as they switched from English to Irish. Still, one could assume rather easily that géill slí meant the same thing as "yield" (or give way) from the shape and colors of the sign. It never became an issue. Sometimes Gaelic road signs appeared randomly outside of the Gaeltacht too, as in this example I found near the Rock of Cashel in Co. Tipperary.


The End

On a tangent, I think I’ll end the series with a comment about driving in Ireland. Every stereotype about renting automobiles and driving in Ireland is true: lanes were narrower; rarely did they have shoulders; roads twisted preciously; animals or farm tractors appeared at inopportune times; cars parked anywhere they wanted and in either direction; progress was always slower than expected; and as a result, car hires came with astronomically expensive and all-but-mandatory insurance. Let’s start with the assumption that nobody wants to get into an accident — I didn’t think Irish drivers were necessarily any better or worse than elsewhere else. The road network itself created dangerous situations. I’ll never complain about US roadways again.

Thanks for reading along with my journey.

The Ireland articles:

Riverboat Adventure, Part 3 (Borders)

On April 24, 2014 · 6 Comments

Europeans began to subdivide the Lower Mississippi watershed into various colonial claims, and the nascent United States carved it further into states, counties and even smaller units. They used the rivers as boundaries in some instances, and straight lines laid arbitrarily in others. Both interacted to form an awesome string of geo-oddities throughout the region. I visited as many as feasible along our path. Kentucky seemed to have an overabundance of them and that’s where I began as I worked my way downstream.

Dorena-Hickman Ferry

Dorena-Hickman Ferry

Missouri and Kentucky border each other, and yet, no bridge spans directly between the two states. In fact there’s a complete lack of any bridges over the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to the Interstate 155 bridge west of Dyersburg, Tennessee, a minimum road distance of nearly 85 miles (140 kilometers) (map).

There is one additional option however, the Dorena-Hickman Ferry (map), running from Dorena, Missouri to Hickman, Kentucky. Not only does it span the gap between those widely-spaced Mississippi River bridges in a very rural area, it offers a rare, direct crossing between two states with a tiny shared border. Few people complete this feat. The ferry holds only a handful of vehicles at a time.

Wolf Island

Wolf Island

To be honest, I’d forgotten about this little oddity until new reader Aaron sent an email message a few days before the trip completely by coincidence and happened to mention it. I figured I’d already planned to drive within a few miles of Wolf Island so I might as well check it out along the way. I would have been kicking myself if the message had arrived a week later and I’d missed my chance.

Wolf Island, Virtually

Consider that there were couple of Kentucky exclaves on the "wrong" side of the Mississippi River appended to Missouri due to changes in the path of the river over time. This made it possible to drive between Kentucky and Missouri on dry land in a few out-of-the-way places. I examined maps closely and determined that the best spot to accomplish such a crossing would involve Kentucky’s Wolf Island via Missouri’s Route 80.

Wolf Island figured into a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1870, Missouri v. Kentucky. Missouri claimed that Wolf Island belonged to it because it had been connected physically to the Missouri from its origin. Kentucky argued the opposite point and offered witness testimony to demonstrate that Wolf Island had once been connected to the eastern shore until the river shifted. The Court found Kentucky’s argument more persuasive and affirmed the legitimacy of the Kentucky exclave.

Route 80 offered a paved surface as it headed towards the river. From there, it was a simple matter of turning onto the gravel of Wolf Island Road for just a few feet until crossing the Kentucky border. The road had an iron rail that could be closed to block access to Kentucky, however it was open when we arrived and I drove over the border just long enough to take the photograph, above. I didn’t bother to ask for permission and there wasn’t anybody nearby to ask anyway. This was actually very easy.

I’ve now crossed between Kentucky and Missouri on water (Dorena-Hickman Ferry) and on dry land (from Missouri to Kentucky’s Wolf Island exclave). I imagine there aren’t very many people who can say the same.

Kentucky Bend

Kentucky Bend

I’ve received numerous inquires from the 12MC audience over the years asking why I’ve never mentioned Kentucky Bend, a place sometimes called Bubbleland for its unusual shape. For the longest time my wife misunderstood what I’d been calling it and thought the name was "Bubba Land." In a sense Bubba Land felt more appropriate, actually.

Kentucky Bend, Virtually

Kentucky Bend formed on a sharp curve in the Mississippi River, physically separated from the rest of the state. It existed where an artificial line intersected the river. The only overland driving route goes through Tennessee.

Kentucky’s southern border with Tennessee was defined along a specific line of latitude dating back to colonial times before Kentucky and Tennessee even existed. Kentucky’s border with Missouri, however, followed the Mississippi River. Surely an accommodation would have been made had this intersection been explored and better understood when designated, although it was deep in the wilderness at the time and nobody really thought about it. Imagine the surprise of surveyors establishing a border between Kentucky and Tennessee when they finally arrived at the end of their journey and discovered that their line cut through a loop of the river.

The reason I’d never written about Kentucky Bend previously was because I wanted to visit it in person instead of simply writing about it in an abstract manner. That visit has now been completed. There’s not much out there although that’s hardly the point. I noticed the usual eye-rolls from my wife while I photographed each sign in succession. Then I photographed the road itself to record the changes in pavement that took place at the state border. Fun times.

As an aside, anytime 12MC ignores a famous US geo-oddity that truly deserves mention, it means that I’m waiting to visit it in person.

Welcome to Arkansas

I crossed state borders repeatedly as I jogged back-and-forth across the Mississippi River during our journey. Every river crossing marked a boundary between two different states. For me, those included Illinois-Missouri; Missouri-Kentucky; Tennessee-Arkansas; Arkansas-Mississippi and Mississippi-Louisiana (and Kentucky-Illinois if one counts my Ohio River crossing). The image of the "Welcome to Arkansas" sign reproduced above appeared on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on Interstate 40, spanning between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas.

Those were wonderful opportunities from the perspective of experiencing a number of awesome bridges plus a leisurely ferry. However there wouldn’t be any state tripoint adventures this time unlike my Dustbowl trip. The tripoints, like the borders, were all located within the river.

Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park

I drove to perhaps the most obscure state park in Arkansas (map). A boardwalk led deep into a headland swamp, to a simple marker noting:

This stone marks the base established Nov. 10, 1815 from which the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were surveyed by United States engineers, the first survey from this point was made to satisfy the claims of the soldiers of the War of 1812 with land bounties.

More specifically, this marked the intersection of the Fifth Principal Meridian (north-south) and its Baseline (east-west). Why did they locate such an important surveying reference in the middle of a swamp? Again it related back to the artificial nature of straight lines interacting with rivers. The meridian began at the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. The base began at the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi Rivers. Their intersection by simple happenstance occurred in a swamp. This marshy spot served as a survey point for the current states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota along with portions of South Dakota and Minnesota.

The marker also served as the tripoint for Arkansas’ Lee, Monroe and Phillips Counties. I may not have captured any state tripoints so counties would have suffice as a substitute.

The Riverboat Adventure articles:

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