Where can you go to be alone without feeling lonely? Try the geographic center of the country.

A quiet Charlottesville

August 23, 2020

Thanks to my sister, Jacquie, for making me aware of this article in the NYT, Several reactions:

  1. The article is really well written - love the images she paints with words.

  2. I was under the impression that the geographic center of the country is in Kansas. I had that on my list of places to visit. Looks like I need to revise my list!

  3. When my son, Lucian, was 12 years old, he spent a week at the Pine Ridge Reservation with his travel baseball team. They did not travel there to play baseball - they went there to work on the reservation. It is one of the poorest places in the United States. From the photos he showed me, it probably does not meet the definition of "living in squalor" but it comes close. There is alcohol and drug abuse, severe unemployment and houses that are full of mold and mildew and surrounded by piles of garbage. It's too bad that she did not make some mention of that, In case you are interested, here is the a link to the Wikipedia entry on the reservation:

Here's the article:

The world ends somewhere around the town of Allen, S.D., which may make the spot a perfect place to visit these days. There on the Pine Ridge Reservation, 100 miles southeast of the Black Hills, is where tourists will find the point in North America farthest from any ocean.

And they won’t find much else. Or, if they prefer, tourists can drive about 30 miles north of the Black Hills to reach the geographical center of the nation, near the town of Belle Fourche, S.D. It’s out in a rancher’s pasture, in a place almost as remote as Pine Ridge. A flagpole marks the spot.

Something has been missing this summer for tourists. We notice its lack at the half-opened beaches with people too wary of others to relax. We sense its absence when we read the sign in an ice-cream parlor’s window that demands we wear masks and keep social distance. We feel it, like a shortness of breath, when we see a hiker, climbing up a hill, step 10 yards off the trail to avoid a hiker coming down.

The solution might be to visit an already isolated place—a somewhere that’s nowhere. The only difficulty is finding a spot both significant enough to qualify for tourism and empty enough to be safe. The Pine Ridge “Pole of Inaccessibility” is a good example. A two-lane blacktop winds for an hour through the reservation, followed by 5 miles of dirt road, followed by a mile hike up the steep backside of a rough escarpment—all to reach a spot unmarked by anything: 43.36°N 101.97°W. I got there near sunset, the horizon cycling through purple, pink, orange and blue as though the most sentimental painter in America had been hired to color the sky. The changing hues washed the pines, the long wild grasses and the rock faces of the cliffs like a slow-mo strobe light. Mapmakers define poles of inaccessibility as geographical points most distant from major continental change. There’s a pole in the South Pacific that is farther from land than anywhere else on the planet. Poles mark spots in Antarctica, Africa and Asia that are farthest from the sea. There’s even a pole in the Arctic, calculated by some not entirely transparent math to be more inaccessible than the geomagnetic North Pole.

Western South Dakota hasn’t completely escaped the effects of Covid-19. The drive through Pine Ridge included stops at two epidemic checkpoints. While answering questions about possible symptoms, I watched children zoom by, four of them stacked on a single dirt bike, and the miles of green prairie beyond them. The tribal police sternly warned me of the 9 p.m. curfew the reservation has instituted to limit social gatherings.

A few hours’ drive from Pine Ridge is the geographical center of the United States. A brass disc from the National Geodetic Survey proves it. The method by which the spot was identified is a little peculiar, involving a cardboard cutout of a map balanced on a pinpoint.

Still, the empty spot north of Belle Fourche might be worth a tourist’s visit: 44.58°N 103.46°W. Think of a child’s drawing of a landscape. The grass is a green patch beneath the straight line that marks the horizon. A pole with an American flag sticks up in the center. The sky is crayon blue with a few random clouds. The place actually looks like that.

Once I parked on the side of old U.S. Route 85 and wriggled through the barbed-wire fence, I found a few more details. The flag is mounted in a small cement block with the year 1959 written on it, after the addition of Alaska and Hawaii shifted the country’s center from Kansas to South Dakota. Apart from that, there wasn’t much to see. Just a few lonely cows in empty fields running all the way to the horizon.

Pretending that the actual geographical point isn’t in a pasture 20 miles away, the town of Belle Fourche has built a monument for tourists: a 21-foot granite compass rose with a visitor center and a scattering of flagpoles. It’s not a bad little spot, but the emptiness of the country’s true midpoint gives a more appropriate feeling.

In a time of isolation, tourists might need these places of significance where no one goes—places where we can be alone without being lonely. Ms. Bottum is a civil-engineering student at the South Dakota School of Mines.

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